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Chuck Barney, McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 19 2011

It's make-or-break time for Fox’s ‘Idol’

On TV

“American Idol” Season 10 – the remix.

That’s the catchy label Randy Jackson has affixed to television’s No. 1 show, which returns next week with a radical makeover that feels both bold and somewhat desperate.

Gone is the fiercely blunt Simon Cowell, who left to bring his British hit, “The X Factor,” stateside. Also out are Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi.

Now, Jackson, who broke in with “Idol” alongside Cowell and the adorably kooky Paula Abdul, will share the judges panel with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler – high-profile newcomers being counted on to return some much-needed buzz to the aging franchise.

“I think they’ve really added a different kind of zest and a freshness to it,” Jackson said in a recent conference call. “You take what was already great and you just kind of add a little extra spice to it.”

But the changes don’t stop there. “Idol” also has implemented several new wrinkles to its timeworn format, including a faster elimination process, the abolishment of gender parity among the finalists, and a plan to release music to the public during the course of the show.

In addition, “Idol” will have a snazzy new set, a new air date, a new bandleader and even an in-house mentor: Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records (the new label for “Idol” winners) will help the contestants fine-tune their arrangements.

All the retooling comes at a critical time for the show, which suffered a 9 percent ratings decline last season, thanks in large part to a deadly dull group of contestants and the lack of chemistry among the judges. Now a decade old, “Idol” finds itself at a crossroads: Is it ready for a rebirth, or is it ripe for a fall?

“You get the sense that the network and the producers are doing everything in their power to make ‘Idol’ the most important show on television again,” says Monica Herrera, an editor for music industry bible Billboard, who calls this a “make-or-break” season.

“ ‘Idol’ might still be No. 1, but a lot of its relevance has been lost.”

Indeed, a worrisome drop in ratings is one thing, but several years have passed since the show produced a breakout sensation who managed to dominate the music charts and captivate arena-sized audiences. Last year’s winner, Lee DeWyze, has sold only 102,000 copies of his debut album to date.

Says Herrera, “It’s crucial that ‘Idol’ make a big splash during – and after – the show.”

But Kristen Baldwin, who covers the show for Entertainment Weekly, says many “Idol” worshipers aren’t overly concerned with what happens after the season’s winner is doused in confetti.

“I think of it along the lines of a dating show,” she says. “When I watch ‘The Bachelor,’ I don’t care if they break up 10 minutes after the finale. I watch the show for the show.”

To that end, Baldwin approves of most of the changes, especially the demise of gender parity among the singers (“Fans want the best contestants, boy or girl.”) She also advocates the quicker release of music (“It’s the model ‘Glee’ uses – a really savvy move.”)

But will Lopez and Tyler be compelling enough to keep viewers plugged into the process? Baldwin has seen audition rounds and likes what she sees so far.

“Everyone expects JLo to be the Paula of the group, but it looks like Steven is going to fill much of that role,” she says of the Aerosmith frontman. “He’s goofy, and there are times when no one seems to know what he’s talking about. I think he’s the wild card. You don’t know what he’s going to say, what he’s going to do, or what he’s going to be on.”

As for Lopez, Baldwin says she’s a “very huggy” cheerleader type along the lines of Abdul. But on the other hand, she brings more of a take-charge tenacity.

“I see her being like the boss, the den mother,” she says. “I think everyone’s a little afraid of JLo.”

Brian Friedman, a choreographer and producer who has served as a judge on “The X Factor,” believes “Idol” may have hit pay dirt with Tyler and Lopez. Still, Friedman acknowledges that name appeal alone won’t guarantee a dynamic panel.

“The most important thing is chemistry. If they don’t have it, everything falls flat,” he says. “I hope they’re outspoken and have some differences of opinion. That makes things more exciting for the viewers.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lopez said the first post-Simon panel will be more “collaborative,” and Fox promotional ads have made it out to be a kinder, gentler bunch. But that could be a risky strategy. For all his caustic snark, Cowell’s approach worked, and he was a massive part of the show’s identity.

Moreover, says Slezak, Cowell was someone who could deliver “succinct, brutally honest and witty” critiques in an off-the-cuff fashion.

“Simon was the voice of the people,” he says. “He had a very specific skill that not everyone can pull off. Even Ellen, who has been an Oscar host, couldn’t do it – and that was a shock to me.”