American Idol
Credit: Frank Micelotta/Fox

Remember a few months ago when media outlets reported that American Idol would have an all-new lineup for season 13? It’s operation clean slate!

Then Fox announced that last season’s judge Keith Urban would return.

There was also a rather great idea for an all-alumni judges panel that Fox seriously explored. Something like: Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood. They’re young, they’ve been on the other side of the table, and now they’re back!

That plan fizzled too.

There was an effort to find a new Simon Cowell — another respected music industry talent-spotter — to restore some panel credibility, such as Dr. Luke.

That didn’t work out, since Dr. Luke has a contractual conflict of interest that scuttled the deal.

And with in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine exiting, even the plan to take good ‘ol dawg Randy Jackson out behind the barn has sputtered, since the longest-serving Idol judge will likely come back on board to fill the mentor role.

Now Fox is talking to Harry Connick Jr., a singer they’ve unenthusiastically circled in the past, to potentially fill the final judge’s seat. I’m told Fox would ideally like to continue having at least one black judge at the table (Sean “Diddy” Combs, Kayne West and reportedly turned down the gig; though might get another phone call). But “ideally” hasn’t been in the cards for awhile.

If Idol goes in the current direction, the panel will be Connick Jr./ and Urban, along with Jennifer Lopez — whose deal we’re hearing is done, yet hasn’t been officially announced.

It’s no surprise there’s only going to be three judges — look how hard it’s been to find two.

A certain amount of media rumors and deal-making switchbacks always precedes a panel change on a reality show. But this year’s Idol shakeup has probably been unprecedented in the number of reported false-starts. Weak ratings tend to spawn even weaker ratings because a show’s perception of struggle and a shrinking audience can scare off potential judging talent. It’s a lot easier to get a superstar (and pay for one) when you have 30 million viewers a week.

NBC’s The Voice is likely a factor, too. Whether you’re a music producer or an artist, everybody wants to be associated with something cool. Reality shows, let’s be honest, are not cool. But the closest music competition series to being legitimately cool, right now, is The Voice (followed by Idol, followed by The X Factor).

Idol production reportedly could even be delayed by the hiring hold-up (judges were supposed to join the auditions as soon as next week), but it’s really the least of unlucky 13’s problems at this point.

There’s a school of thought that says Idol cannot reverse its ratings spiral no matter who is on the judges panel. That the judges, for all the media attention, are irrelevant. That after more than a decade, the format has simply grown tired. Even if that’s untrue, it’s tough to see how a panel consisting of two previous judges who were both okay will magically turn things around. More than ever before, Idol seems like it’s in trouble this season before it even begins.

Maybe an all-alumni panel will work for season 14?