That question has been answered at least for the newest member of the panel, when Ellen DeGeneres announced today that she would not be returning to the show. She released the following statement regarding her departure:
“A couple months ago, I let FOX and the American Idol producers know that this didn’t feel like the right fit for me. I told them I wouldn’t leave them in a bind and that I would hold off on doing anything until they were able to figure out where they wanted to take the panel next. It was a difficult decision to make, but my work schedule became more than I bargained for.I find her sudden concern about her "work schedule" to be a red herring. In May, when Casey came on her show after he had been eliminated, she said to him, "I'm glad that I'm a part of this (meaning American Idol) now because when I go out to the audition rounds this year -- for the first time I'll be doing that -- I want to put more people like you in. I want to put more musicians and more different styles and people that normally wouldn't be seen on that show." Nothing changed between then and now in her schedule, unlike Ryan she hasn't added two or three more jobs onto her existing two.
"I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings. I loved the experience working on Idol and I am very grateful for the year I had, I am a huge fan of the show and will continue to be.”
I think her other reason may be the more accurate explanation for her change of heart -- this was not a good fit for her. Ellen is primarily two things -- a comic and a music fan. Neither of those qualities came out this year. Her humor often distracted and detracted from the performance she was supposed to critique. Most of the time she offered either weak praise or noncomittal platittudes. She never -- as they might have said to a contestant -- found her voice. I find it ironic that the person who told Casey twice that he was stiff seemed herself so uncomfortable in her role behind the judges' desk.
The problem with Ellen was the same problem all the judges had -- they thought the show was about them. They ignored every dictionary definition of what a judge is supposed to be -- someone who offers a dispassionate, fair, and reasoned opinion after due consideration. Instead, this year in particular was a three ring circus whether it was the Kara the Cougar storyline or what fruit a contestant was or the endless repetition about how someone could never live up to early promise. Why did it matter whether Kara could figure out what kind of a performer someone wanted to be or whether she liked someone's outfit? I've wanted to say this all year -- it isn't Song Choice Idol. Just critique the damn perfomance.
None of these offerings from the judges rose to the level of a thoughtful evaluation. Instead they made the show about them and made the contestants mere afterthoughts. Ellen leaving is a move in the right direction, but the heart of the problem lies elsewhere. When we hear the announcement that Kara has decided to leave for "personal reasons," we'll know that Idol has a chance of reclaiming its old groove.