It’s become Hollywood and the music industry’s favorite new parlor game: star casting reality TV talent competition judges. But with an increasing number of beaten-down A-listers limping away from these judges tables with bruised reputations and dim career prospects—albeit a fair amount richer—and the shows themselves barely seeing a benefit, it may be time to call game over.
News leaked from an “insider” Thursday that Fox is planning to fire all four of American Idol’s judges at the end of this season, the lowest rated of the reality TV elder’s 12 seasons thus far. That means that Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban, and Randy Jackson, who has thus far survived every dizzying round of musical chairs at the Idol judges table, are all getting pink slipped. Or, at least, that will now be the narrative when the quartet does not return next year—they were fired—even if they had planned on quitting on their terms.
It’s yet more embarrassing press for a singing legend, current chart superstar, country hitmaker, and...OK there’s not much that can embarrass Randy Jackson at this point...who have been media punching bags all winter: blamed for plummeting ratings, ridiculed for their judging style, and exploited as players in a supposed year-long catfight.
It’s not hard to assume how this judging stint was sold to Carey and company: pick up a gargantuan paycheck now and receive a presumed career boost later when you leave, a launching pad to bigger and better things. Though it’s hard to scoff at the reported $18 million and $12 million that Carey and Minaj were given for joining Idol this year, the post-show careers of departed judges Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, Cee Lo Green, and more prove that weathering the indignity of a reality-TV judging table may not be worth that cash.
Yes, there is something to be said for the fact that the hyper-intense media circus that follows whenever one of these big names signs on to judge one of these shows bestows a renewed relevance on these celebrities, a perk that can’t be denied for artists staring down a waning career. And while the ratings hardly approach the numbers of Idol’s heyday, these shows do give the stars a platform to use to their advantage. Lopez scored two of the biggest hits of her career—“On the Floor” and “Dance Again”—while judging Idol, and Carey is wisely premiering the music video for her promising new song “#beautiful” on the show.
But whether they leave on their own accord—like Lopez, Aguilera, and Abdul, the first time—or are fired—like Scherzinger or Abdul, the second time—that “bigger and better things” promise has repeatedly failed to come to fruition for these celebrity judges. After leaving Idol, Lopez hasn’t had another song hit the Top 20 of the Billboard charts. The two live-action films she starred in, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Parker, grossed an embarrassing $41 million and $17 million, respectively.
Aguilera left The Voice for the current cycle to focus on her music (she’ll reportedly be back in the fall). That album, Lotus, posted her lowest first-week sales ever. The only single to make any kind of dent from the record, “Your Body,” peaked at a paltry number 34 on the Billboard Hot 100. She suffered through the spate of negative press about her so-called bitchiness and being overweight while judging The Voice presumably so that her music career would benefit when she left. Clearly, that didn't happen. And Scherzinger, who was fired after one season on The X Factor? Has anyone heard a peep about that solo album that’s supposed to have been coming from her for the better part of a decade?
While its motivation may be different, even Idol seems to be realizing that it may be time to end this practice of reaching for the stars. According to The Wrap’s report, a retooled Idol next season will be operating under a mandate: “No more big checks for divas.” It’s fairly obvious why. The eight-figure salaries being thrust at the Careys, the Lopezes, and the Spearses aren’t returning the investment. Sure, there was hoopla galore when Simon Cowell drafted Spears to The X Factor, but the buzz died with her zombie performance and the expected ratings surge never happened. Fox is learning a $30+ million lesson with Carey, Minaj, and Urban: all the big-named talent and pre-premiere drama won’t yield ratings if the judges aren’t captivating enough.
Any big artist paying attention to the ways the media and the network have treated Carey and Minaj and wise enough to notice the flailing careers of Lopez and Aguilera would be wise to run away from the Idol casting circus that we can presume is coming to town in the next few months. And with reports that those eye-popping paychecks are going by the wayside, too, there remains to be no incentive left for a major star to agree to sign on with the show. Forget the speculation over who is going to be the next American Idol judges. The better question is: who would even want to?