By my estimation, the most important person to the future of "American Idol" won't be a part of Tuesday (Jan. 12) night's premiere of the talent show other networks refer to as The Death Star.
 
FOX and Simon Cowell used Monday morning's Television Critics Association press tour panel as the opportunity to make the somewhat shocking (but largely anticipated or previously reported) announcement that the smirky British judge will be departing "American Idol" after this season to concentrate his attentions on the 2011 launch of a domestic version of "X Factor."
 
In the FOX press conference, Simon Cowell repeated multiple times that "American Idol" is bigger than just one person and certainly those of us who have been talking to Nigel Lythgoe in two or three conference calls per year for the better part of a decade know that the former executive producer has long sworn that the format is the star.
 
I guess I can't argue with that statement, except that the format has always been deceptively simple in its execution. Pretty young people get on stage and sing. A panel of judge either raves or tears them to pieces, but the final decision is in the hands of the voters. The problem with the latter component is that, for the most part, the voters have followed the judges in lock-step over the years. We remember the Sanjayas and the Kevin Covaises, the dreadful contestants who defied expectations, because they're the exceptions. We've committed names like Jennifer Hudson and Tamyra Gray to memory because "abominations" like that usually occur only once or twice per season, if that. 
 
The disconnect between the judges and the "American Idol" voters is so tiny and insignificant that when "American Idol" broke with precedent last spring and introduced the Judges' Save, it ended up being a minor fiasco. After failing to find fault with the voters for over a month, the judges wasted the Judges' Save to keep blues piano mediocrity Matt Giraud around for an extra two weeks, during which time he did nothing to suggest that any wrong decision had been made.
 
I can't honestly say if the voters mostly agree with the judges because they're easily swayed by one of the central portions of the format or because the judges have generally been right. 
 
The format is, indeed, the star of the show, but the centerpiece of the format was, for seven seasons, a stable three-person judging panel of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. When "American Idol" returns in the spring of 2011, the only remaining judge from that Holy Trinity will be Randy Jackson, which may be a tragedy akin to Ringo Starr someday being the last remaining Beatle. 
 
Randy Jackson is, at best, a complimentary player in a more assertive agenda. He's a follower with only limited willingness to give assertive opinions of his own. Without a stronger personality to emulate and copy, Randy is a repetitive spewer of tired cliches and banalities. The only justification for keeping him around in past seasons involved his acceptable chemistry with Paula and Simon.
 
For Season Eight, "American Idol" added Kara DioGuardi, who contributed eye candy and occasional bitterness when evaluating other attractive females. Kara's interactions with Bikini Girl were among the season's most memorable, only because of how unbecoming they were for a person in a position of supposed authority. 
 
Neither Randy or Kara is likely or capable of becoming the sort of dominant and polarizing figure that Simon Cowell is and was, the inevitable generator of watercooler comments. For four or five seasons now, I've had a running joke in my "American Idol" recaps, listing the judges by the names of famous trios or quartets, letting only Simon keep his own name. The gag is that the other folks could be a mix-and-match assortment as long as Simon is there.
 
That's why I began this story the way I did. It's a distinct possibility that Ellen DeGeneres will be this season's most important figure on "American Idol" and she won't make her first real appearance until the Hollywood Round. 
 
It seems like a lot of pressure to put on a newbie, but it's incumbent upon DeGeneres to be both substantive and hilarious. She needs to be everything she's frequently been as an award show host, everything that her daytime supporters feel her to be as a talk show host. She has to be honest and candid and not afraid of hurting the feelings of contestants who don't deserve to be on television. She doesn't have to be Simon, but she has to be talked about.
 
And that means that the "Idol" producers have to let her talk. They have to know that starting in 2011, somebody will have to pick up the soundbyte time usually given to Simon and that Randy and Kara can't be counted upon. So if that means that sometimes Randy and Kara have to get the "Wrap it up" signal 10 seconds sooner than they might have previously, so be it. Simon has to be allowed to say whatever's on his mind for the sake of the present and Ellen has to be allowed to say whatever's on her mind for the sake of the future. 
 
If Ellen speaks her mind and isn't a softie push-over, I really think "American Idol" will survive Simon Cowell's defection without major attrition. She is, after all, a writer and a fast-on-her-feet comic. She ought to be good. Provide she can be critical and amusing, it hardly matters if she brings any musical credibility to the table. Simon's seat can be filled by a record company insider of some sort and it won't even matter who he is or what he adds other than occasional technical jargon. "Idol" will survive.
 
If, however, Ellen is all sunshine and lollypops, as some people fear, and she isn't given enough time to be funny and personable, the show might indeed be sunk, because then Simon will leave a three person panel without a strong oppositional voice and without buzz and producers will go out find somebody they think can be another Simon, even though they're all smart enough to know that a Simon Clone isn't Simon. 
 
The "Idol" producers should know that this season is a tryout for next season and if Simon is serious about wanting to leave "Idol" on top, he'll get that and cede some of his time to the newbie. Unfortunately, it's going to be a few weeks before we can see if Ellen DeGeneres is any good at all. 
 
If "Idol" returns big on Tuesday night -- and it always has, even in the years naysayers have predicted epic drops -- FOX will be excited and ready to celebrate another ratings victory. But "Idol" is no longer really about 2010. It's about 2011 and beyond, the years After Simon. FOX won't know if things are OK there until mid-February when the Top 24 begins and we hear how Ellen critiques individual performances. 
 
No pressure, Ellen, but TV's most lucrative franchise may be riding on your shoulders.