EVANS VESTAL WARD/FOX/VIA AP
Last year’s finale of “American Idol,’’ with host Ryan Seacrest (right), featured Adam Lambert (left) against Kris Allen. (Evans Vestal Ward/Fox/Via Ap)
LOS ANGELES - “American Idol’’ was the colossus that dominated television in the new century’s first decade, generating top ratings, a heady share of buzz, and a handful of bankable stars including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson.
Whether it can retain its status this year, let alone through the second decade, is a crucial question for its home base, Fox, as well as the network’s competitors and the seemingly bottomless well of aspiring singers who see it as a shortcut to discovery.
It’s a challenge for a series that, entering its ninth season Tuesday, is undergoing its biggest shake-up yet with Ellen DeGeneres taking the place of Paula Abdul on the judging panel that includes Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and, back for her sophomore turn, Kara DioGuardi.
Can “Idol’’ hang on as the No. 1 series, a spot it’s held for five years among all viewers and for six years among 18-to-49 year olds, a demographic much favored by advertisers?
Yes, said industry analyst Shari Anne Brill - for now.
“It will remain the top-rated show through this year,’’ said Brill of Carat USA. After that, she said, it’s a guessing game, especially if uber-judge Cowell decides to exit after this season and “Idol’’ is deprived of his sharp bite (or at least loud bark).
The show’s producers and Fox pay due respect to the judging panel but say what counts most are the “kids,’’ their favored term for the mostly 20-something contestants angling for a record contract and career, such as last year’s winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert.
In focus groups with viewers, it’s about contestants that provoke the most emotion, said Fox executive Preston Beckman, adding, “They want to root for someone and see someone win.’’
DeGeneres brings “something unique and will be the nurturing person on the show and create an interesting dynamic with Simon. But at the end of the day, it’s not on her shoulders to carry the show,’’ he said.
Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of series producer FremantleMedia North America and an “Idol’’ executive producer, said she’s nothing but bullish on the future.
“Thank God it’s an event, like a sporting event, so it rises above the crowd,’’ she said.
Its ad rates are a cut above, too: A 30-second commercial on “Idol’’ cost around $500,000 last season and hit more than $600,000 for the finale, according to the ad-buying firm Initiative, while other top 10 shows were getting closer to about $250,000 for half-minute spots.
To be sure, viewership for “American Idol’’ has been shrinking since its 2005 peak when it averaged 30 million weekly viewers, according to research chief Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. The median age of viewers has shot up, from nearly 32 years old in the first season to about 44 last year.
Younger viewers are especially taken with performers such as Lambert and fellow finalist Alison Iraheta who have “a bit more edge to them,’’ Beckman said, so that was a focus of the contestant search, which included auditions in Boston.