LOS ANGELES - The ratings are down. Randy Jackson is out. Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj are still at it.
All is not well on TV's once dominant "American Idol," despite a shake-up at the beginning of this season that was supposed to rejuvenate the aging Fox talent competition. Instead, the behind-the-scenes-and-sometimes-in-front-of-the-scenes drama continues to cast a shadow over the series, right up to Thursday's coronation of "Idol's" 12th season champion.
Jackson's declaration last week that he was departing the show means producers could plan a proper send-off for the lone remaining original judge this week, much the same way they did for Simon Cowell during the ninth season finale in 2010. However, 'the fates of the other three judges remain uncertain amid reports they're out, too, and Fox and "Idol" producer FremantleMedia aren't commenting.
It's oh-so-familiar territory for the show, whose panel has revolved like an amusement park carousel since the addition of songwriter Kara DioGuardi at the beginning of the eighth season in 2009. The will-they-or-won't-they speculation sparked publicity for years, but many viewers - the ones who are left, anyway - have seemingly grown tired of the guessing games.
"It's a disservice to the talent on the show," said Lyndsey Parker, Yahoo's music editor who writes about "Idol" and other televised singing competitions on the "Reality Rocks" blog. "I'm quite fatigued by all the emphasis on the judges, especially when they step down or aren't asked back or whatever, and the speculation begins about all the potential replacements."
A trio of chart-topping new faces on this season's panel was supposed to breathe new life into "Idol." With reported paychecks of $18 million for Carey, $12 million for Minaj and $6 million for Keith Urban, there hasn't been a return on the investment. The ratings have never been lower for "Idol," which for nine seasons was the most-watched show on TV.
What went wrong? How did "Idol" lose its way? Was it merely a lackluster crop of contestants this season? Their song selections? Or have viewers simply grown weary of searching for yet another superstar since 2002? Maybe they were turned off by that ongoing feud between hip-hop diva Minaj and pop queen Carey, just as much as by some of the contestants?
"When you're on the stage, it does feel pretty awkward," acknowledged Candice Glover, the R&B vocalist who will face off against country singer Kree Harrison on Wednesday. "When it's happening to another contestant, I try not to watch. I don't think it overshadows the performance, but when you're up there, you have to wait for them to finish (the back-and-forth)."
The tone between the pair is far darker than the days when Cowell playfully teased Paula Abdul, and the vitriolic tweets and sensational asides between Minaj and Carey have stood in stark contrast to all the "girl power" up on stage. For the first time, five female singers ascended to the top of the pack, and a woman will win the show's grand prize for the first time since 2007.
It's likely no consolation that over on NBC's "The Voice," which has regularly toppled "Idol" in the ratings this year, drama-free celebrity panelists like Usher, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Shakira actually seem to all get along. Some of them even dueted together last week at a Los Angeles event. It's difficult to imagine Minaj ever laying down a rap alongside Carey.
"I don't think 'Idol' is ever going to get back to its glory days," said Yahoo's Parker. "It's really difficult to retool any show that's been around for this long and make it the No. 1 on TV all over again. That said, I think it could rebound if they cast a diverse set of contestants and judges that have good chemistry. They don't necessarily have to be mega-stars."
The old "Star Search" show originally lasted for 12 years before it fizzled out (ironically, it was resurrected in 2003 after the success of "Idol"). It doesn't seem "Idol" has reached that point just yet. The show is still a huge moneymaker and draws millions of viewers. At its peak in 2003, the "Idol" finale attracted more than 38 million. Last season, more than 21 million watched the conclusion.
Perhaps even more will tune in to this week's finale to see this version of the "Idol" judging panel one last time.