Judge Steven Tyler is leaving and taking his naughty rock star vibe with him, fellow judge Jennifer Lopez is dithering about staying put, and ratings for the Fox show have declined as TV's talent show field gets more competitive.
When "American Idol" returns for its 12th season next January, it will have to be a reengineered version of the once-powerhouse series that turned hopefuls such as Jennifer Hudson into stars and gave network rivals fits.
One big step would be a clean sweep of the judging panel. Aerosmith frontman Tyler got the ball rolling with his announcement Thursday that he was putting rock 'n' roll ahead of the show that he said had been "over-the-top fun."
"I strayed from my first love, Aerosmith, and I'm back - but instead of begging on my hands and knees, I got two fists in the air and I'm kicking the door open with my band," Tyler said in a statement. Aerosmith is on a nationwide tour with Tyler and has an album due out in the fall.
Tyler's departure leaves original judge Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, but their futures are cloudy.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press as the news about Tyler broke, Lopez said she was saddened to hear that he was leaving and was weighing her own decision.
"I can't even imagine anyone else there right now because I've just spent two years sitting next to him," she said. "I love Steven, and we became close during that time. We were a great support for each other, on an adventure that neither one of us knew what it was going to be. So it's hard to hear that he won't be doing it."
Lopez, who proved a warm charmer on "Idol," said Tyler's departure will play a role in her decision to stay or go. She has already indicated that there is a good likelihood that she will not be back.
"All hope is never lost, not all hope, but at the same time, there are too many things that I need to think about," she said. "I know they want me back, I know that I want to go back, but it's not as simple as that. When I started 'Idol' ... I signed on for one year. I didn't even think about doing it for two years, let alone three years. To make the decision to go back a second year was a big deal for me."
Jackson and his "dawg!" exclamations have been a stalwart part of "Idol." But the show's multi-year contracts, such as the one Jackson signed, typically include an escape clause that the network can choose to exercise or not.
A call to Jackson's representative was not returned Wednesday. Fox declined to make an executive available to discuss the show and its judges, but one expressed measured regret over Tyler's decision in a statement.
"We are very sad that Steven has chosen to focus more on his music, but we always knew when we hired a rock 'n' roll legend, he would go back to his music," said Mike Darnell, the network's president of alternative entertainment.
Speculation about potential new panelists has focused on Mariah Carey, with former "Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert getting a shout-out from his fans. Much is at stake for the show and for its judges: Lopez's contract reportedly was worth $12 million and the stint proved a career-booster for her.
Ryan Seacrest, the other original cast member, will provide a stable center. He signed a two-year contract with "American Idol" producers this spring to continue as host.
The Fox series, which began with Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as judges, has made changes on the panel over the years. Ellen DeGeneres joined one season, and songwriter Kara DioGuardi was added as a fourth judge to work with Jackson, Cowell and Abdul.
The addition of Tyler and Lopez two years ago added fresh star power, and the pair and Jackson clicked on-camera.
But "American Idol" ended up in a vulnerable position, coming off a May finale that drew 21.5 million viewers as Phillip Phillips was crowned the newest winner.
It was a record low finish and followed a pattern of declining viewership for the once-inevitably top-rated series, not to mention a pattern of "white guys with guitars," as fans describe the show's recent string of similar winners.
The series ended the 2011-12 season as No. 2 with an average 20 million viewers for the Wednesday performance episodes, just edging third-place "CSI" on CBS (19.7 million) and ABC's top-rated "Sunday Night Football" (20.7 million).
"Idol" still rules among the most-watched talent shows, topping ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and NBC's "The Voice." But the Fox show is fighting to keep advertiser-favored young viewers, with "The Voice" nearly equaling its audience among adults 18 to 49.
Fox, which from the start has protected "Idol" by programming it just once a year, has now diluted its uniqueness with a family competitor, Cowell's "The X Factor," which debuted last fall. After a disappointing start, the show underwent its own judges' shakeup to add Demi Lovato and Britney Spears.
"American Idol" hasn't been helped by a run of champions who have failed to achieve the career sizzle of Hudson, Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson.
The winner, however, ultimately is up to the audience. The judges are in the network's and producers' control, and their next moves are critical ones.