American Idol has only been off our screens for about five minutes and it’s still been dominating the pop culture headlines all week!

After a lackluster season 12 which saw ratings plummet to an all time low, and a panel of judges no one liked, rumors recently surfaced that Idol is planning a very big step for its 13th year. All the current celebrity judges are out – and in their place will be a new panel comprising of FORMER Idol contestants.

The names currently being bandied around include Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aitken and Adam Lambert and yesterday reports surfaced that Hudson’s deal is essentially done. So is the story true? And is this a good move? Here’s my take…

Okay, first up – is it true? Here’s what makes me suspicious – the pace of these ‘announcements’. The new Idol panel doesn’t have to be decided until September, so why would Fox rush a decision this big – they have all summer. Heck the new X Factor panel has only just been announced, and that series premieres in 4 months! The timing feels off to me. It’s too fast.

On the other hand, Fox hasn’t denied the stories, or even issued an ‘all options are on the table’ style release, which does indicate some validity to the story. Plus, let’s be honest, there’s no way the old panel are coming back – Randy has officially left, Mariah has made clear she wants to go, Nicki doesn’t seem interested in a second year and only Keith seems to want to be a part of season 13. My gut instinct thinks the idea is one of many being considered and Fox has leaked the story to gather what people’s response might be. And the fact that in general people really like the plan is an indication that this may soon become a reality.

Okay – but is it a good idea? Actually – yes I think it is. In fact I think this may be a bit of a game changer for Idol IF the new panel is accompanied by some other key changes the format desperately needs.

With 3 high profile music-singing competitions now on air these shows need to do something to distinguish themselves from one another. The Voice has become the star-studded celeb panel show. I’m not a huge fan of the series, but you have to commend the show’s producers for how cleanly they’ve locked up their judges for the next two cycles of the competition. And the transition from Christina and Cee Lo to Shakira and Usher was handled fantastically well.

The X Factor meanwhile is trying a ‘3 Beauties and a Brit’ theme next season by adding Kelly Rowland and Paula Rubino alongside Demi Lovato and Simon Cowell. Rowland obviously appeals to an R&B audience and Rubino is clearly a nod to a Latino fan base (though is largely unknown to American audiences). They’re also both cheap. Contrary to the general perception, The X Factor is a hit – it’s just too expensive. If  this move brings costs down and the audience doesn’t slip by more than 10% next season the move will generally be considered a success.

Now back to Idol. Clearly Fox have realized that astronomic star salaries don’t actually help ratings. Britney didn’t put bums on seats for The X Factor and J. Lo and Mariah didn’t help Idol. Sure they could throw money at stars like Pink, Rihanna and Katy Perry for a star-studded panel next year but the results would likely be the same – further ratings decline and a more costly show.

But bringing back former contestants as judges is actually a rather genius move in a lot of ways. It instantly marks American Idol as different from its competitors and allows the show to boast about the one thing it has that no other show has – Idol has created stars. And lots of them. The Voice and X Factor have yet to create one.

 Obviously some of these stars are bigger than others and Idol needs to secure some of its heavy hitters on the new panel – most obviously Kelly, Carrie, Fantasia, Jennifer, Lambert or Daughtry. If 2 of the spots on the new panel aren’t filled by these names it runs the danger of feeling low rent.

At the same time the new judges have to be able to judge. Kelly worries me. Fantasia could be a struggle. And I worry that Jennifer may let her nice rather than diva side take control. Which is why, for me, Adam Lambert is a key party of the puzzle. He’s smart, funny, likeable and very, very honest. He’s the injection of real Idol needs.

Okay so we get an all alumni panel – it’s a great start – but unless Idol revamps the rest of its production the change will be pointless. Exec producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick have to go – they’ve been complacent for way too long. The theme nights have to be updated to the 21st century. We need the celeb mentors back (which brings some star power to the show but in a good way). The results night show has to be clipped back – to 30 minutes perhaps – or filled with better content. And Fox and the show’s producers have to stop trying to ‘script’ the show’s outcome.

If these changes are all made I could see Idol experiencing a rebound next series. Will it become a 30 million hit again? No. But there is still a lot of life left in the franchise if handled properly.

To wrap up I’ll say one thing. For the first time in a long while people were talking about American Idol in an excited way this last week. That has to be a good sign. So listen up Fox – Idol’s golden past may be the way forward for its future…