Who needs scripted dramas this summer when you have American Idol?

Yes, the ongoing saga of who will replace surly Simon when TV’s number one show returns for its 10th season in January has been a massive source of gossip, speculation and outright falsehoods. But is all the uncertainty REALLY good for the show? After months of online discussion I’m beginning to wonder if Fox haven’t painted themselves into a bit of a corner.

So in case you haven’t been following the story so far here’s the latest! Last month recent show addition Ellen Degeneres quit the Idol judging panel saying it didn’t feel like the right fit for her (because of course after 8 seasons on the air how could Ellen possibly know what the show would involve!)

That left the increasingly irrelevant Randy Jackson as the only original judge on the panel, alongside Kara Dioguardi, who was added to the show in Season 7 and despite massively improving as a judge last season, still invokes irrational loathing from many Idol fans.

Rumor has it that Kara is on the way out, and coming in are Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. But then last week J.Lo was said to be on the outs due to her ‘diva’ demands, with Mariah Carey or Shania Twain now mentioned as replacements. And as for Tyler he’s looking likely but no deal has been officially announced, so who knows.  Meanwhile Elton John is still said to be a possibility, while lesser names like Harry Connick Jr, Chris Issak and even Jamie Foxx and Diddy are waiting in the wings…

Now many commentators are saying that Fox’s continued refusal to name Simon’s successor is great for the show, keeping the slightly sagging series in the headlines and a major topic of conversation. And while I subscribe to that notion to an extent – the idea that there’s no such thing as bad press isn’t one I subscribe to.

For me the whole situation makes it seem as though no one is in control. This is Fox’s biggest show. Heck it’s the biggest show on TV period. And yet the whole affair has been handed appallingly.

Nigel Lythgoe is now returning to the show as full time EP and the idea seems to be that he will right the sinking ship – but the limelight loving Lythgoe keeps giving interviews and dropping tidbits even though he fully admits he’s still not back on the show and hasn’t really got his head around the series. So who’s running the show in the meantime? (remember Season 10 auditions have already begun) And is loose lipped Nigel only adding to the confusion?

Then there’s Ellen’s departure after just one season, which I think did real damage to the franchise. Before she started on Idol everyone questioned Ellen’s role on the show. As much as people like her she always seemed like an odd choice. Yet Fox proudly asserted how great Ellen was going to be and that she would be the ‘voice’ of the people. But after a season of wishy-washy critiques (‘that was great, you’re great, you sounded great’) that lack of musical experience became even more glaring. The fact that it was Ellen’s decision to leave just makes Fox look even worse – if Ellen had wanted to stick it out would they have lamely stood by her for another season?

Ellen may be gone but where does that leave Kara? One day she’s in – the next she’s out. Not a good way to treat a talent on your show – especially one who became the show’s MVP last season (see my 15 Lessons We Learned This Season for more). With Simon gone that judging panel needs smart critiques more than ever. You really think Randy is going to blossom overnight and break out of the semi-comatose state he’s been in for the last 3 seasons (‘pitchy’, ‘It was just alright for me’, ‘a million, bazillion percent yes’, ‘from me to you’) Please.

And as for the new talent – if J.Lo and Tyler are really in – why haven’t they been confirmed? And if their names leaked before their deals were done – well that’s just sloppy on everyone’s part. The announcement of Ellen was kept tightly under wraps and announced perfectly. Why hasn’t the same happened this time around? Now if Lopez and Tyler become part of the panel it will feel like old news. All of which gives the impression that Fox is reacting to the news cycles – not leading the way. The whole process seems amateur.

In many ways this shouldn’t be a hard task. Simon has left huge shoes and filling that void is intimidating. But Fox will spend MAJOR money on the right person. And the exposure and publicity of being the new Simon would be huge. Sure Idol may have slipped a little in recent years but it’s still the only show on TV that regularly scores over 20 million viewers. And it can still launch stars – a la Adam Lambert. That’s got to be attractive to at least a few A-listers.

Sure all this speculation is good on the one hand and keeps Idol in the public eye. But I question whether such heightened publicity, a whopping 5 MONTHS before Idol returns, actually helps the show. My worry is that all the rampant speculation has raised expectations to such an impossible level that suddenly J.Lo and Tyler don’t look all that exciting – and seem like yesterday’s news. And if for some reason the panel does end up with a Harry Connick Jr or a Chris Issak it’s gonna seem like a really underwhelming decision. Is that the best they could do?

At the end of the day whoever Fox ends up choosing I’ll still be watching. I love Idol too much to give up on the show – even after its worst season to date (read my Fallen Idol piece for exactly why this year was the season of suck!).

For what it’s worth here’s my personal panel preference:

Randy Jackson (not a fan, but you want one member of the original team)

Mariah Carey (real vocal skills, Paula style loopiness, I sense she could be a biyatch!)

Kara Diogaurdi (loved her last season, songwriting expertise, solid critiques)

Elton John (legendary, knows and loves music, has the Simon bluntness factor. Would be AMAZING!)

So let’s wait and see… The judges are needed for auditions by mid-September – so we’ll find out who’s on the panel very soon.

But what do you think? Who would you like to see filling Simon – and Ellen’s – spots? Would you prefer a 3 or 4 person panel? And how do you think Fox have handled the situation so far? I’d love to hear your thoughts…