Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Mary J Blige are among the heady names being tossed around as potential judges for American Idol after Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez skipped out on next season.
Star power, after all, is what judges add to TV talent shows that otherwise feature unknowns whose performances can range from surprisingly good to stunningly awful.
But Fox's American Idol, trying to right itself after shedding viewers in its 11th season, may also need to play a numbers game - as in the age of the judges brought in to revitalise a show whose audience is getting smaller and older, neither a plus for advertisers.
"They need judges who will resonate with young people," said media analyst Brad Adgate.
Carey, Dion and Blige, undeniably winning stars, all are in their early 40s.
The median age for the American Idol audience rose above 50 last season, the first time ever, and Adgate suggests it take a page from The X Factor playbook, as devised by its creator and producer, Simon Cowell.
"Cowell beat them to the punch" by hiring Britney Spears and Demi Lovato after X Factor, the Fox version of Cowell's British hit, stumbled in its debut last season. Spears, 30, and Lovato, 19, replaced Paula Abdul, 50, and Nicole Scherzinger, 34.
Lopez announced her departure yesterday (NZ time), a day after Tyler (an unlikely senior statesman at 64) said he was leaving American Idol to concentrate on his role as Aerosmith's frontman. Both appeared for two seasons.
"I honestly feel like the time has come that I have to get back to doing the other things that I do that I've put kind of on hold because I love Idol so much," the 42-year-old actress-singer-dancer told Idol host Ryan Seacrest on his radio show.
Fox may be scouting for an entirely new panel, with some reports suggesting that original Idol judge Randy Jackson, 56, could shift to another role while Carey, whom he manages, becomes a judge. Jackson's and Carey's publicists did not respond to requests for comment.
The makeover comes at a critical time. In May, American Idol posted its lowest-rated finale ever after a season that marked its poorest showing yet among young adult viewers age 18 to 49. A pattern of overall declining viewership continued for the show, which fell from the No. 1 spot for the first time since the 2005-06 season, placing second to NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
Idol needs to stem its audience losses and level out, Adgate said, which would be enough to keep it a Top 10 program and a "force to be reckoned with."
Among the younger possibilities who might help, 19-year-old Miley Cyrus fits the Lovato mould. Speculation also has focused on former Idol winner Carrie Underwood, 29, and finalists Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert, both 30.
Lambert addressed the possibility this week in an interview in London, where he appeared in concert with Queen.
"Well, nothing's been confirmed yet. If I were to be asked, I'd love the job. I think that would be great. That's 'if,' because nothing's been asked yet," he said, adding that he'd enjoy being a panelist who could "help other artists reach their dreams."
Nigel Lythgoe, an Idol executive producer who recently joked about hiring Jerry Lewis and Charlie Sheen as judges, was circumspect about Lambert.
"The minute American Idol is discussed and judges are discussed there's gonna be a lot of names flying around, and this is an interesting one," he said. "I happen to like Adam Lambert a great deal but I'm not sure where this has come from probably from Adam Lambert's fan club. We'll wait and see."
Youth isn't all, of course. Other factors at play involve the fan base that judges bring or develop, their skill on live TV and their chemistry with fellow panelists.
Casting a talent show judge, while less daunting than making a Supreme Court pick, can be tricky. The right person has enough celebrity cachet and success to be desirable, but not so much to be unattainable. It's unlikely that Rihanna, at least for now, sees a judgeship as a career ambition.
Predicting who will flourish in a reality TV setting is another hurdle. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the hard-living Tyler would display such impish charm?
Conversely, popular daytime host Ellen DeGeneres was a short-lived Idol judge, appearing ill-at-ease and timid in her contestant critiques. Songwriter Kara DioGuardi had serious music credentials but wasn't ready for prime-time.
Whether panelists will mesh, or for how long, also is hard to predict. The love-hate banter between Cowell and Abdul delighted viewers on Idol but had worn thin when they reunited on X Factor. On NBC's The Voice, country star Blake Shelton and rocker Adam Levine have proved a fun and feisty duo.
Idol producers have so far been circumspect while fans toss around names like Carey, Dion and Blige. While millions of dollars are at stake for networks, celebrities weighing a career move to Idol know a hefty paycheque may be just the start of their windfall.
When Lopez signed a reported US$12 million, two-year deal with Idol, she hadn't triggered real excitement in the record world for years and her box-office value had taken a hit with flops including The Back-Up Plan.
But on Idol, the glamorous, warmly appealing Lopez restored her popularity and converted it into new opportunities, including a TV show about global Latin talent. Tyler's image adjustment did the same for him.
"Who would have thought Tyler would be doing Burger King commercials and Lopez would be hosting Saturday Night Live?" analyst Adgate said. "They got back into the mindset of pop culture followers."
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