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Ellen Is Leaving Idol. Will Anyone Stay?

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And then there were two. After a year of high expectations and underwhelming performance, Ellen DeGeneres announced today that she will not return to American Idol next year. This leaves, with Simon Cowell’s spot still not filled, two openings on Idol’s Supreme Court-like bench—at least. With Fox preparing to present its fall TV plans to critics in Los Angeles in a few days, is this the only shakeup coming as the show seeks redirection?

Discussion, and a couple thoughts about what did and didn’t work about Ellen as a judge, coming up… after the break!

First, Ellen. The reasons to have high hopes for her were obvious. She’s telegenic, effortlessly funny and good at working live. In theory, it was potentially a good idea to have a personable non-musician on the panel as an audience surrogate. No, she wasn’t a producer or recording artist. But hey, neither are you and I; neither are the millions of people who vote on the show. But we shoot off our opinions about Idol every week.

The problem: Ellen, while engaging and funny in the Hollywood rounds, wasn’t willing to actually judge. Whether it was, as she wrote on her website, being uncomfortable with hurting people’s feelings, or a lack of confidence in her opinions on music, she never owned her nonmusician-judge status. She wasn’t a Paula Abdul, who may have coddled competitors too much but at least advanced her own—often loopy—point-of-view. Ellen seemed afraid to venture an original opinion, and too often simply either tap-danced for time or me-tooed whichever judges spoke before her.

Where Paula, at least, provided some entertainment value along with being the mother-hen figure, Ellen was just redundant. Contestants already had Ryan Seacrest for a protector, and we already had Kara and Randy for platitudes. It was to the point where Ellen was devaluing her own brand on Idol, and in that sense, it is probably best for her (or the producers) to cut her losses.

So whether Ellen quit or “quit,” her leaving presents a question: do the producers, as has been rumored, simply dump all the judges and start over? It’s not as if Kara or Randy are the rocks on which the show needs to build its future. And two new judges will probably be as big a transition as four. Better, maybe, to take a show that (while still very popular) has had sagging ratings and negative buzz and begin an “Idol starts from scratch” narrative. [Update: Another valid option, it should be said, is to replace only Simon, and go back to three judges—four was probably too many to begin with.]

Heck, maybe Fox can get a reality show out of it. Who should be America’s Next Top Judge?