"American Idol" cast

Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Ryan Seacrest, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban are back for a new season of “American Idol” on Fox.


LOS ANGELES — “American Idol’s” 12th season debuted this week with a new panel of judges — and the growing perception that the show is no longer relevant.

The singing competition lost nearly a quarter of its viewers last year, falling below 20 million for the first time since 2003. There was also a drop in that coveted 18 to 49 demographic. Undoubtedly, some of that audience ended up in the arms of competitors “America’s Got Talent,” “The Voice” and former “Idol” judge Simon Cowell’s U.S. edition of “The X Factor.”

The hope going into this season of “Idol”?

That the tension between sharp-tongued rapper Nicki Minaj and glitzy pop diva Mariah Carey will provide a ratings boon.

But with so much attention on the judges, many don’t realize that “Idol” remains a solo player in the star-making department. Show alumni have sold more than 200 million records and notched 371 No. 1’s on the Billboard charts. They’ve also won Grammys, an Oscar, done Broadway, starred on prime time TV and even judged on competing shows.

Considering the success of past contestants such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Fantasia, Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson, it makes sense that this season’s slogan is “Everyone dreams. ‘Idol’ delivers.”

Minaj, who admits she was wary of joining the judges’ panel, couldn’t ignore the show’s massive reach.

“Even up until the last day up I had to sign the contract I was still not 100 percent sold because I feel like the ‘American Idol’ brand is so big that you can’t do it unless you commit fully,” she said recently at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.

“I’m never gonna get the opportunity to be a part of something this big and something that reaches middle America and I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose.”

Carey helps close a gap that “Idol” has long struggled with — getting a true vocal talent in to critique the aspiring talent. Along with Minaj and country music statesman Keith Urban, the new lineup can now compete with “The Voice’s” set of credible and relevant judges.

“We were listening to what the audience was telling us,” said Trish Kinane, executive producer. “One of the things they told us was that on the judges’ panel they wanted people who were experts in their own right, had a talent and a right to be here. With a lot of these shows now it’s a crowded marketplace. They are looking for honesty from the panel.”

It remains uncertain if “Idol” will win back its place as the most watched show on television, and while producers certainly want some of that glory back, one thing they aren’t concerned about are the competitors sniffing their tail.

“This is still the king of the shows,” said Mike Darnell, president of alternative entertainment at Fox. “This is the one, and only one, that makes stars. Period.”

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