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With Cowell going, ‘Idol’ season raises questions

"American Idol" hopefuls react to the camera as

"American Idol" hopefuls react to the camera as they wait in line for auditions for season nine to begin at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., (June 14. 2009) Credit: AP

Welcome to the season of questions. The start of "American Idol's" ninth season is just hours away, yet none of the previous eight seemed so rich with speculation. Normally, that’s a good thing. Maybe not so this time. With Simon Cowell leaving for good after May’s finale to start up an American version of his British talent show “The X Factor,” "Idol" is on the verge of Something Big — certainly Big Change. Good? Bad? Let’s go to the questions to parse this out:

>> PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of contestants and guest judges from this season's upcoming 'American Idol' audition rounds

What’s so different about ‘Idol’ this season? Before we get to the elephant in the room — Simon’s departure after this season — the surprising answer is, not as much as you’d think besides Ellen DeGeneres replacing Paula Abdul on the judge’s panel. Audition rounds start with Boston Tuesday night at 8 and continue for three weeks, then on to the February Hollywood rounds, with the top 24 unveiled Feb. 17. The following week, Feb. 23-24 , we split up — females one night, males the next — with the first results show Feb. 25. Then, take a deep breath . . . the final 12 starts March 16. You’ll notice a couple of things here — only 24 contestants, not 36, and no wild-card round. “Idol” felt 36 was too big a crowd. The wild cards may resurface in some form.

What about guest judges? That is significant. With Abdul gone, “Idol” had to go to guests for the audition rounds — Victoria Beckham (tonight), Mary J. Blige, Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris, Joe Jonas, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Shania Twain. We won’t see DeGeneres until next month.

OK, so what about Ellen and Paula? In an interview with USA Today, DeGeneres described how she might behave as a judge: “If there’s something funny, I think I’ll add humor to it. If it’s not funny, I’ll just talk about what I liked or didn’t like.” She’ll also counter the heavy, Simon Cowell — the role Paula long assumed. Yet “Idol” without Paula — at least hours before launch — already seems like something different, or blander. As I write these words, a tweet arrives from Abdul: “Gaga ooh la la . . . I have ladygaga stuck in my head!” That’s our Paula — nutty, fun, irrepressible and irreplaceable.

What can we expect, knowing that Simon will be going? Naturally, Fox will want to “test” replacements once the top-12 competition starts, but that’s hard or impossible to do, unless guest judges join our foursome briefly. The larger issue, of course, is the 10th season. Simon will be replaced — Fox said so Monday, while adding that three more seasons were picked up — but the true terra incognita question is: Can “Idol” survive without its biggest star?

Do we still love “Idol”? Important question because our love, indeed, has wavered (according to Horizon Media around 23 million viewers last season, down 7 million from the peak). Teens and young adults have bailed big time — last season’s totals were the lowest since the first — while the average viewer’s age now stands at 44.2 — about 12 years older than at launch. A graying “Idol” must find a way to bring the kids back.

Can it? Ummm.


>> PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of contestants and guest judges from this season's 'American Idol' audition rounds

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