'American Idol' Is Not Dead Yet

Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler are stepping down as judges. Good riddance.

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Two years ago, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler joined American Idol, and it was the best thing that could have happened to the aging singing competition. Now, the two are leaving the show, and, once again, it is the best thing that could happen to the aging singing competition.

By the time Simon Cowell exited Idol in 2010, the series had failed twice to reinvigorate the judges panel (with Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres), and the winner of the 2010 season, Lee Dewyze, posted abysmal record sales. Without its biggest star, Cowell, and without the ability to make stars, critics wondered whether Idol's days were numbered. The show's future seemed particularly uncertain with the spate of reality TV singing competitions about to premiere, including The Voice and Cowell's new project, The X Factor. But the media frenzy that surrounded Cowell's departure and the search for new judges brought a renewed interest to Idol, and the eventual of hiring of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez piqued audience curiosity to a level the show hadn't enjoyed in years.

At the start, reviews of the new judges bordered on glowing. "The instant chemistry among the three judges was so right, they couldn't have created it in a lab," said Linda Stasi at The New York Post. "Steven Tyer is a marvel," said Annie Barrett at Entertainment Weekly, while Lopez is "swift and effective." But more importantly, though the ratings for the premiere, the first without Simon Cowell, were down from the previous season premiere, they were actually up from the previous season finale. Furthermore, at 26 million viewers, it was still the highest-rated show of the night. J. Lo and Steven Tyler, it seems, had saved Idol.

That is, until they started ruining it again. The refreshing warmth and kindness they brought to the judges table quickly began rubbing critics and audiences the wrong way. The duo seemed incapable of baring their teeth and offering a harsh critique. Their constant, uniform praise of nearly every performer became maddening and made the show less interesting. Lopez and Tyler may have initially won the audience's favor, but they soon lost it, and their departures may be right on time. Now there's another exhaustive search, through which every rumored replacement—Adam Lambert! Mariah Carey! Aretha Franklin!—will spark instant, passionate fan debate as to whether they're a worthy choice, which will once again bring new interest to the show. The debuts of the new judges, whoever they end up being, will bring fresh, curious eyes to the show. The Idol exodus may be a good thing.

This is all to say there is still plenty of life left in American Idol. There's been much ado about the show's falling ratings—particularly as viewership for The Voice rises—but it's more of a ratings fade than ratings collapse. The numbers are still good—great, even—and the show could continue to shed viewers at this soft pace and still remain a hit for years to come. Similarly, it doesn't matter that Idol hasn't discovered a star in what seems like eons. The show stopped crowning Kelly Clarkson-Carrie Underwood caliber supernova pop stars back when Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul were still judging. But then again, The Voice, America's Got Talent, The X Factor: None of these shows are producing talent that is making any real impact on the music charts. Yet there are more singing competitions than ever, and audiences continue to tune in. Viewers seem to have given these shows permission to evolve in purpose from "the search for the next superstar" to "entertaining Americans with some good singing."

And that's the key right now. Entertaining. That's why Idol should count itself lucky that its judges are leaving. They're paving the way for what could be some truly entertaining television. Whether it's Mariah Carey trying not to recoil as dozens of teenage singers warble her songs, or Adam Lambert doling out advice to a downhome country singer from the heartland, the possibilities for good TV with the rumored new judges are already infinitely more entertaining than a third season of the J.Lo-Tyler show would've been. Who knows who the judges will end up being, but odds are that millions of Americans will gleefully tune in to see how they do.