After several weeks of rampant speculation, Fox has finally confirmed that Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Randy Jackson will make up the American Idol judges' table on the show's upcoming 12th season.
The news, which had been continually pushed back as deals were finalized, truly came down to the wire — as the show's first auditions in front of Idol judges are scheduled to begin today in New York. (Auditions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Charlotte, San Antonio, Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City will follow.) Last-minute final negotiations with one of the new judges (either Minaj or Urban) held up an announcement until today; the team will be officially unveiled at a New York press conference on Monday.
"Nicki's an unbelievably captivating international phenomenon who has made an indelible mark on rap and pop. And Keith is another great addition to Idol — he's one of the biggest stars in country music and I know that our fans and contestants will fall in love with him," says Mike Darnell, President of Alternative Entertainment at Fox. "With an unparalleled star like Mariah, fan-favorite Randy, chart-toppers like Nicki and Keith and our incomparable host Ryan, we've put together one of the most exciting judging panels around."
But now that it's official, does the new partnership between Carey, Minaj, Urban and Jackson represent the last great hope for American Idol? As viewers apparently tire of the singing-competition genre — witness the lackluster starts this fall for both The Voice and The X Factor — Fox is hoping a new influx of major star wattage will lure viewers back to granddaddy of TV's modern-day talent shows when it returns in January.
The need for change was necessary after Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler ended their two-season run on Idol. But Fox and producers FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment were looking to shake things up anyway. Idol got a ratings bump when Lopez and Tyler joined the show in 2011, but saw its ratings dip 23 percent last year. "Although we finished the season at the top again," Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly told reporters earlier this summer, "our ratings were down. Not being the only game in town, we need to keep things fresh."
Superstar diva Carey was the linchpin of that strategy, a star who had been courted by several shows (including X Factor) before finally deciding the time was right to sit in a judge's chair. The search to fill out the rest of the panel began in earnest once Carey sealed her deal on July 23, the day of Fox's TV Critics Association press tour.
After that, a cavalcade of names popped up as contenders for the Idol gig, including Katy Perry, Alanis Morissette, Kanye West, Brad Paisley, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Nick Jonas, Pharrell Williams and Enrique Iglesias. Among those performers, Iglesias came closest to actually making the cut.
But according to insiders, the Idol producers and Iglesias ultimately couldn't come together on a deal. The singer rakes in a lot of money performing internationally, and one source said he was asking for a salary in the eight-figure range to justify taking time out to go on Idol. (Carey is believed to be pulling just under $17 million for her Idol stint, while one source says Minaj will take home $10 million and Urban is likely to make around $4 million.)
Factors beyond money were also said to have ended the talks with Iglesias. That's when Fox and producers decided to come back to their back-up choice, veteran Idol dawg Jackson.
Jackson was instrumental in helping bring Carey (whom he co-manages) to Idol, so he was always expected to remain on the show in some capacity. But as speculation about Iglesias heated up, it looked like Jackson might segue into a mentoring role (similar to what music exec Jimmy Iovine already does on the show).
Jackson's return gives Idol a bit of continuity in the face of another judges' panel overhaul, along with the returns of host Ryan Seacrest and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Meanwhile, with a judges panel still being ironed out, on-camera auditions, which typically begin in mid-September, were instead scheduled toward the end of the month.
All eyes will likely be on superstar Carey as she takes on her first major TV gig. But some observers believe that eccentric performer Minaj could be Idol's wild card this year. "Nicki Minaj is incandescently hot right now, she's a huge recording artist at the moment," says a rival TV exec. But the addition of Minaj could also bring some fireworks to the table, as insiders speculate that Carey might not be happy with the hire. "She was promised she would be the only female judge," contends one source.
Not only has Minaj quickly become a music superstar, with tracks such as "Super Bass," but she recently appeared as a voice in the animated feature Ice Age: Continental Drift.
As for Urban, who became the front-runner to add a country presence on the panel when Paisley didn't pan out, the star already has TV judge experience via his stint on The Voice Australia. Urban dropped out of The Voice Australia's Season 2 (airing in 2013) due to his new Idol commitment. In the U.S., Urban has sold more than 15 million albums and has been behind 14 No. 1 songs, plys has won four Grammy Awards, all for best male country vocal performance.
'Nicki is someone who represents a different side of the music industry, who has now crossed into mainstream culture with her unique artistry, style and flair," says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO, FremantleMedia. "Keith is one of country music's true stars who brings with him charm, wit and knowledge about the industry." Adds Marc Graboff, President of CORE Media Group (owner, 19 Entertainment): "Idol has truly never looked better."
With Carey, Jackson, Minaj and Urban, the show is returning to a four-judge panel, something it last tried in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The move further brings Idol in line with its upstart rivals X Factor and Voice, both of which also boast four judges and singing superstars. Idol had already strayed a bit from its original concept when it hired Tyler and Lopez, bringing in big names (although both were in a bit of a career slump) as judges for the first time. When Idol first launched in 2002, judges Simon Cowell and Jackson were unknowns, while Paula Abdul hadn't been in the headlines for years.
But as the music industry changes, TV exposure is seen as invaluable exposure to sell CDs and concert tickets. And just as movie stars make their way into TV, it's become acceptable for music performers even at the height of their careers to take a job as a TV talent show judge. Carey is expected to release her next album next spring, just as she's on Idol. Urban is also said to be back at work on a new album, while Minaj is expected to launch a new clothing line in 2013.
Interest in who might take the Idol gig was so intense that Katie Couric even attempted to take credit on Thursday for confirming the final names, even though several news outlets (including TV Guide Magazine) had beaten her to the punch. But don't get too used to the new configuration — Fox and the show's producers have all said that the show's judge roster will continue to flip. That's out of necessity, as big names generally won't commit for more than a year or two. "I wish it was back to the world where we had the same cast for seven years, it was a lot easier," Fox's Darnell said this summer. "But now you have to change every couple of years."
Even as Carey, Minaj and Urban are expected to breathe some new life into Idol, whether viewers will be compelled to tune in remains to be seen. Singing shows appear to be hitting a low note with viewers at the moment: The September 10 season three debut of The Voice averaged 12.3 million viewers—down 67 percent from the show's winter premiere (which, to be fair, was inflated by airing right after the Super Bowl; compared to the second episode, it was down 31 percent). At Fox, there was disappointment over The X Factor's September 12 debut, which drew 8.7 million viewers, down 30 percent from last year. NBC remains optimistic, particularly because The Voice is doing better than The Sing-Off and The Biggest Loser did last year in its Monday and Tuesday homes. And Fox execs hope new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato will help X Factor grow over time. Nonetheless, no one's whistling a happy tune just yet.
Meanwhile, just as the Idol judges panel is settled, get ready for another singing show to mix things up. This time it will be The Voice on the hunt for a few new big names, as some of the show's coaches (including Christina Aguilera) are expected to take a breather this spring. Sources say replacements will have to be in place by next month, when a new round of auditions begins. Perhaps some of the names rumored for the Idol gig will once again rear their heads. Let the unbridled speculation resume!