Why Ellen Was Picked for American Idol

For all the attention Washington's bluster gets, history will see this little health care squabble as a mere sideshow distraction from the news we received yesterday; news that will fundamentally alter the way we pick our next American Idol.

In national politics, fundamental procedural changes come but once every hundred years or so — the electoral college will likely outlive us all. Whereas with Idol, those citizens who deeply care about the future of their society, the honest, hard working Americans who stay up late speed dialing votes, who devote their families savings to make signs and printing t-shirts for their favorite contestants — all because they dare to dream of passing on a better world to their children— those people now find their America turned on its head, as they see their judiciary shaken up once again with the news that there will now be four judges on American Idol, and one of them will be a comedian.

While it will be for history to decide what the long term effects on our society were, some first thoughts about what this means for the most important show in the history of the world, and why it happened:

Mixing It Up: At the beginning of last season, Fox's Reality Chief Mike Darnell told me that the challenge of the show from here on in would be constantly finding ways to keep it fresh and surprising in its eighth and ninth seasons, at the point where most TV shows are adopting orphans and relocating the series to Miami in desperate attempts to regain some interest. But that is what shows typically do when they are in free fall towards the bottom. Idol, despite being off its heights, still remains the #1 show in television by a mile and in that position, very few shows are willing to take chances with the basic formula. Say what you will about Fox and Idol, they are not afraid to take risks.

Judges Rule: In exile from Idol, former showrunner and So You Thing You Can Dance boss Nigel Lythgoe has been offering the opinion that the judges' soap opera has gotten so carried away it is eclipsing the contestants. Last season, many Idol watchers were dismayed by how much the hi-jinx at the judges table sapped gobs of attention from the performers. And off-stage, every week the headlines were dominated by another judges story. It is Lythgoe's view that the show lives or dies on the strength of its contestants, not by the soap opera on the floor — which with four judges had become a monster. When Paula departed it was the hope of many that this would be used as an opportunity to deflate the panel back to its original size. It was not to be.

Tivo Alert: Last season, the pile-up at the judges table caused the show to run over almost every week. Most egregiously, Adam Lambert's finest performance of the season, Mad World, was not seen by Tivo viewers. Despite howls of complaints it seemed impossible to rein in the judges. The addition of another judge who is already a star, with a very healthy ego of her own who will no doubt want to make sure her points get heard, will not help this cause.

Nice Lives: Comedian though she is, Ellen has been the BFF to many an Idol contestant, having them all on her show and supporting each and every one. Likely, she has been thought of as one who will bring this caring concern to the cold-hearted panel.

Quip-o-Rama: It has been said that this will bring a different element to the Idol judiciary, namely comedy. But in fact, that has more or less been Simon Cowell's function, providing just the right metaphorical one-liner to explain why a performance sucked. It's not like he provides serious musical instruction. Will the judging now become the equivalent of a Friar's Club roast?

Certainly, Ellen DeGeneres has been around the block in entertainment. But this is no little ABC sitcom, this is no Oscar telecast with Bruce Villanch there to back you up; this is American Idol and Ellen has just graduated from AAA baseball to the Indy 500. How she fares will depend very much though, not just on talent, but how seriously she takes the sacred responsibility that has been thrust upon her. History waits to judge.