This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
An unprecedented air of uncertainty surrounds the once-dominant American Idol as the Fox show continues to slide in the ratings. Down 22 percent this season, its May 2 episode was the least-watched ever, drawing just under 11 million viewers. Battles between freshman judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj -- both onscreen and on Twitter -- have combined with near-geriatric theme nights (among season 12's guest mentors: Smokey Robinson and Harry Connick Jr.) and led producers to put all options on the table. Here are five ways Idol might look different next season.
1. Another judge overhaul
Tension between Carey and Minaj is said to be so bad that they never cross paths until cameras are rolling. In all likelihood, neither will be invited back. Says a production insider: “The show has always taken pride in being about the contestants, not the judges. And if the judges had a little rapport with each other, it wouldn’t be all about them. Instead, all anybody ever wants to talk about is how the judges don't get along. It’s exactly what producers didn’t want.” So what happens next? Fox and Fremantle already have reached out to former judge Jennifer Lopez, who will perform on the May 16 finale. And sources say they are looking at several non-diva music industry contenders.
2. Bye-bye, theme nights
"These contestants are not interested in the old stuff," notes an Idol insider of themed performance shows focused on The Beatles and Burt Bacharach as NBC's The Voice, also on a downward trajectory ratings-wise, offers Pink and Justin Bieber songs. A highly placed source says Idol producers likely will do away with themes altogether since the free-choice method of semifinals had much stronger tune-in.
3. New executive producers?
While grade-school pals Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick are credited with driving the Idol train for 12 years (Lythgoe took a two-season break) -- and keeping it from going off the rails -- they're usually the first to shoot down finalists' contemporary song choices. Show insiders speculate that the sixtysomething Brits might be sent home next year, but a production source insists talk of the duo's exit is "rumor."
4. Scrap the summer tour?
If lower ratings translate to weak ticket sales for Idol's 40-date summer trek, which kicks off June 29 and hits venues like Detroit's Joe Louis Arena (capacity: 20,000-plus), promoter AEG might consider ditching the tour to save money and headaches. "You have to match the public's interest," says Jared Paul, who has overseen the Glee and Dancing With the Stars tours. "Whether somebody will part with their hard-earned money is all talent-dependent." Worth noting: The Voice and Fox's The X Factor don't currently take their talent on the road as a package offering.
5. Format tweaks
After 12 seasons, nine as broadcast's top-rated show, drastic reinvention might not be in the Idol vocabulary as cheerleaders insist that vote counts and social media engagement have not declined at all. Rather, sources say "format tweaks" are in store for the future. Will they be enough to save the show?