New for '09 from Nielsen: March sweep

But her judging gaffe actually could play to program's advantage

Scandal has always suited Fox's "American Idol." From accusations of voting irregularities to the secret personal histories of contestants, Fox's unequaled reality hit produces a flurry of controversies every season. Judge Paula Abdul alone has been responsible for countless woozy YouTube moments and at least one severe alleged infraction — a reported romantic relationship with a contestant during the show's second season.

The more alarmed and critical the media headlines, the more "Idol" has thrived in the ratings.

" 'Idol' is all about cast and controversy," Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell said. "So as soon as you get the right ingredients, the ratings go up again."

But with the show's viewership levels now at historic lows, will the latest "Idol" incident give the show a curiosity-driven viewership bump? Or further discourage its maturing audience?

On Tuesday's episode, a last-minute procedural change resulted in the judges critiquing contestants' first round of performances instead of waiting until the end of the second round. Abdul gave a negative review of contestant Jason Castro's two songs.

The only problem: Castro had sung only one.

His second performance — of Neil Diamond's "September Morn" — was from the "Idol" rehearsal and was scheduled for later during the show. Judges are supposed to base their critiques on how contestants perform during the live telecast, not the rehearsal.

The on-air gaffe has unleashed a tsunami of comments from fans online accusing Abdul of, at best, unfairly prejudging of Castro and, at worst, being part of a competition series where judges' comments are determined in advance.

Abdul explained Tuesday on "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest's morning radio show that she was "confused" and got "lost on her notes." But Abdul and "Idol" executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz said judges typically do not use notes.

"The judges occasionally watch the rehearsals, which they've acknowledged before in various press interviews, as well as on-air during the broadcast," Frot-Coutaz told The Hollywood Reporter. "While this gives them an idea of what the contestants are going to perform that night, it does not influence their comments for the actual broadcast performance. Paula's comments were based on her acknowledgment that she had seen a small portion of the rehearsal. The judges do not use 'rehearsal notes.'

"Besides," she added, "the judges only give opinions. It's America who decides who is eliminated."

In a typical year, the headline-making faux pas might be shrugged off by Fox and "Idol" producers, but this year has not been typical.

The series is down 10% season to date, soundly trouncing every show in its path but showing signs of a ratings decline that began last season. Fox points out rightly that a 10% decline is nothing compared with how far many other broadcast shows have dropped this year.

And after a couple of sleepy months of "Idol," the incident is arguably the most interesting event that's happened on the show this season.

"I don't think this will have any long-term effect on the show," said Rob Yarin, vp programming at Magid Associates. "She seemed legitimately confused. Viewers want the judges to go off the performance viewers can see at home, and what the judges say is important and the rules are important — but as long as their comments seem natural when the live broadcast is on the air, it's fine."

Regardless of the impact, an "Idol" research study recently came to light that showed producers surveying fans about potential format changes for next season. One question asked fans was whether they wanted to see more or less of Seacrest. With the latest Abdul blunder, some now wonder if she will remain on the show -- while others may think the addled Abdul is central to the show's appeal.

But whether the ratings erosion is a sign of "Idol" weakness or an inevitable marketplace downturn, Frot-Coutaz said the "Idol" judging and host lineup will not change.

"We are constantly looking at the show with an eye toward improving the viewing experience," she said. "However, after seven seasons on air as the most popular show on television, one thing is certain: Randy, Paula and Simon are, and will be, our judges, and Ryan is, and will be, our host."