“American Idol” has found its new Paula: Ellen DeGeneres.
In a stunning — and potentially brilliant — late afternoon announcement, Fox said the talk show host/comic will become the new fourth judge on America’s top-rated show, starting with the live episodes in February. She replaces Paula Abdul, who quit “Idol” over the summer due to a salary scuffle.
DeGeneres simultaneously announced the news on her Twitter feed and during a taping of her daytime talk show.
“This is so exciting for me,” DeGeneres said. “We’ve been dealing with this for the last couple of weeks and I’ve been dying to tell everyone. It’s just been so hard to keep it a secret and we just finally got the OK, and I’m so excited.
“It is going to be so much fun,” she added. “I don’t know how it happened myself but I have not missed one episode of that show. I’ve watched every single thing. I love everything about it and I love music, as you know.”
Abdul’s first public reaction to the news: She used her Twitter feed to post a promo for her new gig hosting VH1’s “Divas Live” concert special.
Meanwhile, industry insiders familiar with the situation say DeGeneres has reaffirmed her commitment to her daytime talkshow by adding three more years to her current deal, which had been set to expire in 2011. She’s now locked into the daytime show through 2014.
Landing DeGeneres- – who’s more famous than anyone on the current panel, save Simon Cowell — is a coup for “Idol.”
She brings her own fan base, something that could prove valuable as “Idol” continues to fight the natural audience erosion that’s a given for any older show.
And she’ll instantly become a major press magnet for the “Idol” machine, supplying reporters who cover the show with a steady stream of new story possibilities.
“She’s going to suck up every last ounce of media attention on that show,” one veteran PR wag predicted.
Of course, there’s a chance DeGeneres could be too famous. She’s such a well-known personality, she could end up overwhelming the careful chemistry on the judging panel — a mix already tested last season by the addition of Kara DioGuardi.
Some critics aren’t worried.
“Ellen is a great choice,” the Newark Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall wrote Wednesday. “She’s obviously comfortable on camera, doesn’t have a big ego (or, at least, never comes across as having one), and… she loves “Idol” and understands how it works. And her relentless enthusiasm makes her not only an ideal replacement for Paula, but an improvement.”
And LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd suggested DeGeneres could bring in viewers who might have avoided “Idol” (apparently they exist).
“I might even watch ‘Idol’ now,” Lloyd tweeted Wednesday.
Bottom line: By hiring DeGeneres, Fox has probably found a way to deal with the fact that some die-hard Abdul fans will be alienated by her absence from the show next season.
There’s no guarantee that those hard-core Abdul groupies will stick with the show because of DeGeneres. But DeGeneres has her own rabid fans who will now likely become “Idol” loyalists (assuming they weren’t already).
In other words, the passion gap left by Abdul’s departure will probably be filled very nicely by the addition of superfan DeGeneres.
As for DeGeneres’ plans for her new gig, she said she wants to be the people’s judge.
“Hopefully I’m the people’s point of view because I’m just like you. I sit at home and I watch it and I don’t have that technical…I’m not looking at it in a critical way from the producer’s mind. I’m looking at it as a person who is going to buy the music and is going to relate to that person. So I’m hopefully going to be that voice of what we’re all doing at home.”
DeGeneres has been a major “Idol” fan, featuring contestants from the show on her daytime chatfest on a regular basis. She also came close to guest co-host the show’s “Idol Gives Back” charity special last year, but dropped out due to a scheduling conflict.
More recently, DeGeneres served as a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” the sister show to “Idol” that airs in the summer.
In a statement issued by the network, Fox reality chief Mike Darnell called DeGeneres “truly one of America’s funniest people and a fantastic performer who understands what it’s like to stand up in front of audiences and entertain them every day.
“We feel that her vast entertainment experience — combined with her quick wit and passion for music — will add a fresh new energy to the show,” Darnell said.
“Idol” creator and executive producer Simon Fuller noted that DeGeneres’ “love of music and understanding of the American public will bring a unique human touch to our judging panel. I can’t wait for this next season to begin.”
And “Idol” executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz joined the chorus of love. “Beyond her incredible sense of humor and love of music, she brings with her an immense warmth and compassion that is almost palpable,” she said.