Once upon a time, the singers were the stars of the show, but now it appears the celebrity judges scrap for ratings as they hog more of the limelight with their own marketing agendas.
American Idol judges are desperate for attention
As the curtain comes up on the 12th season of American Idol, one can't help but wonder if this singing competition has become more about the judges than the contestants.
Reportage these days seems to largely focus on the prickly interactions of these mega-salaried celebrities, who now come and go through a revolving door in a bid to shore up Idol ratings that have softened in recent years due to a global glut of talent shows.
Reminiscing with Billboard last month, Idol's season two runner-up Clay Aiken went so far as to remark: "When I was on, Ruben [Studdard] and myself and Kimberley Locke were the stars of the show. Now Idol is about the judges. I don't even know if they remember there are contestants anymore."
Even Fox's entertainment chief Kevin Reilly told The Hollywood Reporter to expect Idol judges to be shuffled more often: "I'm afraid we will, if not every year. I think change is going to be part of the show going forward. We're 12 years old. I think we've got to keep it fresh."
Cynics could also argue that celebrities primarily come on the show to promote their own brands and albums or to re-energise careers - but in fairness, who wouldn't?
In big-dog years, 12 may be coming perilously close to euthanasia, but make no mistake; despite audience erosion American Idol remains a ratings pack leader in the US, pulling in an average 17.2 million viewers per episode last season, with a 30-second ad slot fetching US$340,000 (Dh1.25m). While The Voice, at 12 million viewers, could soon be clicking at its heels, the former Idol judge Simon Cowell's The X Factor lags badly at 8.7 million viewers.
For Idol's executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, stirring some volatility into the celebrity pot appears to be his strategy for the new season since two of the three new judges - Mariah Carey, the best-selling female recording artist of all time, and Nicki Minaj, the quadruple-platinum rapper and fashion icon - made headlines in North Carolina during auditions last October with a diva skirmish that escalated into full-blown tantrums, profanity and threats.
Speaking to Barbara Walters after the blowout, Carey said: "It felt like an unsafe work environment. Anytime anybody's reeling threats at somebody, that's not appropriate, sitting there. I'm on the road with two babies. I'm not going to take any chances, so yeah, I did hire more security."
The third new judge this season is the country singer Keith Urban, a four-time Grammy Award winner who has sold more than 15 million albums and the husband of Nicole Kidman. Perhaps Urban will be the antacid to the dyspeptic Carey-Minaj relationship.
The fourth panel member is Idol's heart and soul, the original judge Randy Jackson, who co-manages Carey and was instrumental in bringing her to Idol.
With so much celebrity gunpowder aimed at the audience, we're reminded that such ratings ammo doesn't come cheap. What's even more shocking is that Carey, Minaj and Urban all say they were, at first, very reluctant to join the judging panel. But at the end of the day, Shakespeare might say these ladies and the lad "doth protest too much".
With reported paydays of $18m for Carey, $12m for Minaj and $5m apiece for Urban and Jackson - not to mention $15m for the host Ryan Seacrest, who has tripled his salary since 2009 - any right-thinking artist would jump for the gig.
"We are the original," boasts Jackson. "We are the Picasso. You can try to copy, but never duplicate."
Hyperbole aside, the numbers speak for themselves; Idol truly is a wannabe singer's best shot at fame, glory and a lifelong career. To date, Idol alums have scored 356 No 1 Billboard hits and enjoyed nearly 250 million iTunes downloads.
American Idol returns at 9pm on Thursday on OSN First HD