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Will 'American Idol' lose its edge with flashy, star-packed panel?

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Keith Urban, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.

When “American Idol” first arrived on the Fox airwaves, its judges were nothing special. One was a 1980s pop singer. Another was a former Journey bassist who few in the viewing audience had ever heard of. And then there was that random angry British guy.

The first viewers to tune in didn’t watch because they thought, “Man! There’s a lot of buzz about this group of judges!” Famous though Simon Cowell may have been in London, and famous as he would soon become here, he didn’t come to these shores as an audience magnet. None of the three did.

Instead, viewers tuned in and made the show a hit, because the trio turned out to be great. It was the right mix of savagery (Simon), sympathy (Paula Abdul) and slogan-y (Randy Jackson, leader of the Dawg Pound). They became reality TV legends, and a group that rivals tried -- and failed -- to replicate.

Now, “Idol” is trying a new tactic. Randy will be joined by Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban to form the quartet that will judge season 12 of “Idol’s” beginning in January. Instead of being innovative, “Idol” is doing exactly what its rivals have tried in order to chase viewers.

This is a quartet designed to get viewers to watch them. Who knows what wacky thing Nicki will say, or what outfit she’ll be wearing? Maybe Mariah will be a more entertaining version of Paula or J-Lo. Maybe Keith will sing a lot.

Michael Becker / FOX via AP

"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest (center) joins Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson.

But while the judges were originally an “Idol” advantage, now they’re just a different version of the four judges on “The Voice” -- or the four judges on “X Factor.” Everyone is going in the same direction, looking for the right mix of fame and hipness to draw an audience. If they can actually offer some insight, snark, or advice to the contestants, that’s super. But it’s a secondary consideration.

It’s hard to remember now, but “Idol” was a risk for Fox a decade ago. Most were skeptical that the format would be as successful in America as it was overseas. It got very lucky when its first season brought a compelling final twosome in Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, and it didn’t hurt that the audience made the right choice in voting Kelly their champion.

More than that, however, it was intelligence and foresight in picking judges that were entertaining rather than simply famous that helped create the ratings monster that dominated the airwaves for years. It showed that it didn’t matter if anyone had ever heard of the stars before -- people would watch entertaining, withering commentary even if it didn’t come from someone already famous.

Instead of being innovative, “Idol” is trying to be just like every other talent show, only slightly more buzz worthy. It might turn out great. The three new judges might make Simon sound like an elementary school chorus teacher for all we know. But it isn’t anything different than what everyone else is already doing.

What do you think of the shift from judges with the best chemistry to judges with the biggest names? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.


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