Paula Abdul hits a sour note

But gaffe could actually play to 'Idol's' advantage

Scandal has always suited "American Idol."

From accusations of voting irregularities to the secret personal histories of contestants, Fox's unequaled reality hit produces a flurry of new 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," said Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell in a recent interview. "So as soon as you get the right ingredients, the ratings go up again."

But with the show's viewership levels currently 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 only sung one song.

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 being, at best, unfairly prejudging of Castro and, at worst, 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 also agreed that 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 incident 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 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-terms 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 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 as well.

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 towards 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."

UPDATE: About 13 minutes into Wednesday's "Idol" taping, Seacrest addressed last night's Abdul blunder: "Last night the judges were thrown a curve ball on the air, which is just part of a live show. But it sparked a lot of gossip about Paula. I read some of this online this morning and just for the record, the rumors, they're not true. She's part of our family and we love her." The judges did not address the controversy. Simon Cowell reached over and hugged Abdul, as did Randy Jackson. "I think Simon still wants to hook up with her," Seacrest said.

Paul Gough contributed to this report.