While American Idol is returning to a more familiar format, there will still be several substantial changes when the curtains go up on the show's ninth season -- including the absence of Paula Abdul, the addition of Ellen DeGeneres, and Simon Cowell serving on the judging panel for the final time.

American Idol's ninth season will premiere over the course of two consecutive nights with a two-hour broadcast on Tuesday, January 12 and a 75-minute broadcast on Wednesday, January 13 -- with both beginning at 8PM ET/PT.

It will represent the beginning of the end for Cowell, as Fox confirmed yesterday that he will be leaving American Idol after its 2010 season to focus on launching a U.S. version of his British The X Factor reality competition series for the network in Fall 2011.

Cowell spent a better part of last year stating he was unsure whether he'd remain with American Idol once the five-season extension he signed in 2005 expires after the show's ninth season this year, and he insisted his coy comments when asked about the situation were not a negotiating ploy.

He said there were conversations about him remaining with American Idol while also working on The X Factor, but they proved to be fruitless.

What do you think about Simon Cowell's American Idol departure?

Talk about it on Reality TV World's American Idol message boards.
"But when we looked at the practicalities of that, it was impossible," Cowell said Monday.

"In my opinion, it's like having a good player and a good football team. The two have to be OK together. I believe it's not my show, but it's still very close to me. We made sure when we did this, that I would be protected. I'm confident it will continue to be the No. 1 show. Everyone is committed to keeping it that way."

In addition to the upcoming season being the last for Cowell, it will be the first without Abdul -- who surprised Fox last summer by announcing she would not return after reportedly rejecting a $5 million a year deal to remain with the show.

"I stand on principle where many people stand on money," said Abdul in late August.

"I'm a hard-working artist. I've lasted in this business for 23 years. And you can't do that unless you are good at what you do. I believe in myself and you have to have your own self respect. And sometimes decisions are very difficult to make, but I've always believed that at the core I'm a survivor. There's not one thing I've done that I've really set my mind to that I've failed at."

Due to her last-minute surprise departure, last summer's ninth-season auditions featured a series of guest judges in her former judging seat: Victoria Beckham (Denver and Boston), Mary J. Blige (Atlanta), Joe Jonas and Neil Patrick Harris (Dallas), Kristin Chenoweth (Orlando), Shania Twain (Chicago), and Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne (Los Angeles).
Reality TV World is now available on the all-new Google News app and website. Click here to visit our Google News page, and then click FOLLOW to add us as a news source!

"All the guest judges on the Idol auditions gave a different perspective because they've all been performers of all different types, and different types of music and stage and record and everything," judge Randy Jackson told reporters during a conference call last week.

In September, Fox announced that it had tapped DeGeneres to replace Abdul -- and she'll make her American Idol debut during the ninth season's first "Hollywood Round" broadcast on February 9.

"I'm not going to be mean anyway. I hate when Simon is that mean," said DeGeneres in September. "You can be constructive and you can criticize somebody in a way that's helpful instead of mean spirited."

Almost immediately, DeGeneres had to respond to critics who felt her lack of experience in the music industry would hurt the show.

"I love music, period. I've always loved music," she said at the time, defending herself.

"And I'm a huge fan of the show. I haven't missed one show since Season 1.  The people are the ones that choose the 'American Idol.' Ultimately it doesn't come down to some expert in the music industry, it comes down to everybody at home that says, 'That's the person I relate to, that's the person that I'm going to buy music from.'"

Fox reality chief Mike Darnell also called the criticism "silly."

"We already got three judges. We used to only have three who have enormously long musical backgrounds," he said at the time. "She brings something different. She brings her wit and love of music. She has a vision of what she likes and doesn't like. Really, does it matter? It's about America voting. She's going to add a different flavor, that's the whole idea."

Despite the absence of Abdul and addition of DeGeneres, the upcoming installment is returning to a familiar format by abandoning several tweaks that were included during last year's eighth season -- including 36 semifinalists, a bracket-style semifinals format that ignored gender, and the additional second-chance "Wild Card" round that had not been used since Idol's third season in 2004.

Instead, the ninth season will feature 24 semifinalists -- 12 males and 12 females -- and no "Wild Card" semifinals round. 

Once Idol's ninth-season semifinals begin, the contestants will be divided into male and female groups and compete separately.  Both groups will then gradually be whittled to six finalists via three semifinals performance rounds that will eliminate two male and two female semifinalists each week based on viewer voting. 

Like Idol's most recent pre-2009 editions, the format will result in each finalist having given three semifinals performances and a gender-balanced finalist field. 

American Idol's Top 12 ninth-season finalists will take the stage for the first time on Tuesday, March 16, with one finalist's journey coming to an end when home viewer votes are revealed on Wednesday, March 17. 

While Fox decided against hosting a third-annual Idol Gives Back charity fund-raising special last spring, the fund-raising special will be back this year and air during the Top 7 results show broadcast on April 21.

"In today's tough economic times, it's more important than ever -- but more difficult than ever -- to raise money to help those in need," said Darnell when the special was announced in October.

"With this year's Idol Gives Back, we're focused on raising awareness about the challenges that so many children and families currently face and demonstrating how even small donations can make a difference and help save lives. Every little bit counts."