So far, the Fox singing competition has avoided the ratings debacle thought possible after the departure of its biggest star.
Compared with last year, the popular audition round is down 9 percent in viewers (26 million vs. 28.5 million) and 14 percent in young adults, but that's within reason for a series in its 10th season, an eternity in TV time. In addition, the season-to-season gap has been shrinking over the first four weeks.
"In this climate, where 10 percent down is the new up, we're really happy. You can't get away from the fact that we've been on for 10 years," executive producer Ken Warwick says. "This seems to be holding steady."
Ratings are down a bit more than might be expected, perhaps accounting for Cowell's departure, says Sam Armando of SMGx, a research unit of ad firm Starcom. However, the loss of him may lessen in importance as "Idol" moves beyond auditions, when the judge's caustic wit was on greatest display, he says. "With all of this said, it's still the No. 1 show on TV. It's doing what Fox needs it to do," Armando says. "It's putting the network's fourth-quarter misery behind it. 'American Idol' is saving the day like it typically does."
Reviews of the new panel - Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and especially Steven Tyler - have been generally favorable. Warwick says he's pleased with the chemistry.
"Everybody says to me they just love Steven. He's managed to keep his entertainment value and his rock-star persona and his don't-give-a-damn attitude, while at the same time showing he has a huge heart and knows what he's talking about," Warwick says. "It's a star lineup. Jennifer's a great singer, she can act, she can dance, and she looks gorgeous. She's done it all. And Randy is one of those gregarious characters that has a huge personality and a huge heart."
The judges advanced 327 singers to the Hollywood round, far more than ever before. Those performers will be boiled down in the next three weeks' shows to 10 viewer-chosen finalists - plus a to-be-determined number of judges' wild-card picks.
Warwick says the judges need to assemble a strong, diverse field. Last year's show was criticized for fielding finalists too similar in performing style and not big enough in personality. "It really got on my nerves last year when all of a sudden, everybody came out and hid behind a guitar," Warwick says.
"It's important we get the mixture right. We need the country singer, the rock singer, the middle-of-the-road ballad singer, the little-off-the-wall kid and a couple of stars. That's the judges' job, not to look at who they're putting through but how that person relates in the (finalists') balance."