NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Fox tweaks the format of "American Idol" each season to keep the much-loved program fresh, but what do you make of this twist? Come 2011, the love-to-hate-him judge Simon Cowell, arguably the central figure on the popular reality series, won't be on the show.
Fox confirmed recent speculation Monday that Mr. Cowell would leave after the soon-to-debut season of "Idol" is complete. He will not return to the News Corp. network's airwaves until 2011, when Fox has agreed to run "X Factor," a Cowell-created talent-search program that has already proven popular overseas. His departure follows that of Paula Abdul, whose tenure as judge ended last season after she and Fox could not come to terms.
The move is likely to prompt speculation about the show's continued ability to attract the massive audiences for which it has become known. "Idol" has been the highest-rated regularly scheduled show for the past four seasons, according to research from Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at independent Horizon Media. But the audience for "American Idol" peaked during its fifth season, Mr. Adgate said, reaching an average of over 30 million.
And developing new programs while popular mainstays still have legs is a sound strategy. NBC has been in a tough place for years after it failed to replace popular programs such as "Friends," "Frasier" and "Seinfeld" with shows that were equally well-received.
By agreeing to pick up Mr. Cowell's "X Factor," already seen in 17 countries, Fox is taking a risk, but probably a necessary one.
Yes, "Idol" has become a ratings and promotional juggernaut, turning young music-god wannabes into chart-topping singers and boosting recognition of marketers who associate themselves with the show, namely Coca-Cola, Ford Motor, AT&T and Apple. And Fox's move could give rival networks a little more leverage against "Idol" -- which CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler likened to "the Death Star" in remarks made over the weekend -- in seasons to come.
But the show is getting older, and so is its audience. According to Mr. Adgate, the median age of "Idol" viewers has increased every year that the program has been on the air, rising to 44.2 in its eighth season from 31.9 in its first. What's more, the ratings for teens between 12 and 17 and adults 18 to 49 during season eight were the lowest since season one. Viewing by children between the ages of two and 11 has also dropped, Mr. Adgate said, by 37% when the program's fifth season is compared to its eighth.
As the show grows older and further removed from its original elements, there's also the chance that its ad rates -- according to the annual Ad Age survey of advertising prices on broadcast TV, Fox's "American Idol" was fetching between $360,000 and $490,000 for a 30-second ad during the upfront -- could decline.