Continued from page 1

Jackson and his “dawg!” exclamations have been a stalwart part of “Idol.” But the show’s multi-year contracts, such as the one Jackson signed, typically include an escape clause that the network can choose to exercise or not.

A call to Jackson’s representative was not returned Wednesday. Fox declined to make an executive available to discuss the show and its judges, but one expressed measured regret over Tyler’s decision in a statement.

“We are very sad that Steven has chosen to focus more on his music, but we always knew when we hired a rock `n’ roll legend, he would go back to his music,” said Mike Darnell, the network’s president of alternative entertainment.

Speculation about potential new panelists has focused on Mariah Carey, with former “Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert getting a shout-out from his fans. Much is at stake for the show and for its judges: Lopez’s contract reportedly was worth $12 million and the stint proved a career-booster for her.

Ryan Seacrest, the other original cast member, will provide a stable center. He signed a two-year contract with “American Idol” producers this spring to continue as host.

The Fox series, which began with Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as judges, has made changes on the panel over the years. Ellen DeGeneres joined one season, and songwriter Kara DioGuardi was added as a fourth judge to work with Jackson, Cowell and Abdul.

The addition of Tyler and Lopez two years ago added fresh star power, and the pair and Jackson clicked on-camera.

But “American Idol” ended up in a vulnerable position, coming off a May finale that drew 21.5 million viewers as Phillip Phillips was crowned the newest winner.

It was a record low finish and followed a pattern of declining viewership for the once-inevitably top-rated series, not to mention a pattern of “white guys with guitars,” as fans describe the show’s recent string of similar winners.

The series ended the 2011-12 season as No. 2 with an average 20 million viewers for the Wednesday performance episodes, just edging third-place “CSI” on CBS (19.7 million) and ABC’s top-rated “Sunday Night Football” (20.7 million).

“Idol” still rules among the most-watched talent shows, topping ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and NBC’s “The Voice.” But the Fox show is fighting to keep advertiser-favored young viewers, with “The Voice” nearly equaling its audience among adults 18 to 49.

Fox, which from the start has protected “Idol” by programming it just once a year, has now diluted its uniqueness with a family competitor, Cowell’s “The X Factor,” which debuted last fall. After a disappointing start, the show underwent its own judges’ shakeup to add Demi Lovato and Britney Spears.

“American Idol” hasn’t been helped by a run of champions who have failed to achieve the career sizzle of Hudson, Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson.

The winner, however, ultimately is up to the audience. The judges are in the network’s and producers’ control, and their next moves are critical ones.

___

Story Continues →