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Three scant months before the news of his expected return to the "American Idol" fold, the show's former executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, suggested getting rid of all the judges and finding new ones.
We'll second his call, and up the ante: Make prospective panelists audition, just like contestants – and let the public pick the next "American Idol" judges.
The delicate balance between the eager youngsters’ singing and the sometimes cranky panelists’ bickering became upended last season, and what got lost in the tumult were the folks who matter most: the TV audience members who care enough to text and call in votes by the tens of millions.
Some big names are being floated as possible Cowell replacements, including Elton John and Justin Timberlake. It's hard to imagine either would subject himself to a competition for the job, but plenty of other celebrities might.
Bret Michaels, off his dramatic victory on "The Apprentice," no doubt would be game, and we suspect his TV boss Donald Trump would be intrigued enough by the challenge to risk getting fired by the public. Howard Stern might give it a go, if only for laughs, and we're fairly sure Chris Isaak – the most off-beat candidate said to be on the Cowell replacement list – would be willing to try out.
As for the current judges, let them take the case for keeping their jobs directly to the people. And just to make things even more interesting, why not invite Paula Abdul to join the competition?
The prospective judges could try out during the performer audition weeks, meaning the voting would start long before the Hollywood performances – adding a new element of drama to the early installments (and no doubt making AT&T very happy).
Fox also likely would benefit from ratings generated by the gimmick, which had a partial test run of sorts this past season. One of the few elements that worked well was the rotating guest judges – Victoria Beckham, Mary J. Blige and Neil Patrick Harris, among others – who filled in before DeGeneres' debut.
One possible downside is that any judges’ competition might swipe the spotlight from the performers, at least early on. But with Cowell’s absence, the upcoming season will be another transition year for “Idol,” no matter what route the producers take.
An audience-picked panel, hopefully, would be able find its rhythm by the time the contest shifts into, say, the top 12 singers.
If a panel chosen by the public flops, we’ll only have ourselves to blame. As for their replacements, well, just like the wannabe idols, there always will be more potential judges waiting in the wings, ready to campaign for our votes...
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.