Can R&B divas like Mariah and Aretha keep 'American Idol' relevant?

Season 12 of American Idol is turning out to have some very difficult hurdles to overcome before they even start auditioning hopefuls – sagging ratings and no judge panel. Could recruiting new star power like Mariah Carey or Aretha Franklin be the key to reviving this dying brand?

Though American Idol does exceptionally well in comparison to other competitive reality shows, its legacy has been fading for a few years now. At its peak in 2006, the fifth season of the show had an average viewership of nearly 30 million. This past season saw a 23 percent drop in ratings, despite the artificial boost in viewership that Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler brought when they became judges in season 10.

Lopez and Tyler joining Idol bought a temporary influx in viewers out of sheer curiosity, but their judging style was not ratings gold. Both are leaving to focus on their own careers, though certainly another influencing factor may be at work; judging can be a difficult task, and the Idol schedule is extremely grueling.

With those two out, and Randy Jackson also reportedly seeking an exit, Idol producers are frantically searching for celebrity judges to not only fill the seats, but also provide the ratings boost they oh-so-desperately need. Names like Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin have been floated, both of whom could prove to be formidable judges. For one, for the first time in the history of American Idol, they would be two judges who have actually had extremely successful recording careers based upon their (gasp!) singing talent. Sorry Paula and J-Lo, but lets be honest – you both are dancers who lucked out with a few recording hits. But respected singers they are not, and the two doling out singing advice lack the credibility the panel needs.

In the personality category, Mariah and Aretha also have the potential to hit it big. Fact is, judging isn’t only about delivering credible advice and criticism, it’s about delivering it with a punch. As mean as Simon Cowell was, viewers loved to tune in for the horrible insults he would hurl at contestants. Mariah Carey’s known for her quirky, somewhat self-absorbed personality, which could prove to be quite entertaining on-screen. Aretha would fall nicely into a “tell-it-like-it-is” grandmother stereotype, which is really what the show needs – an experienced veteran who can dole out tough but fair advice and criticism.

However, even the addition of these two divas can only take the show so far. It’s not 2005 anymore – Idol faces tough competition from big brands like The X Factor, where Cowell is currently lowering self-esteems. Plus there’s NBC’s The Voice, which has injected the singing competition reality TV show with some much-needed innovation.

Twelve seasons in, the Idol machine has definitely become more predictable – just look at the preeminent White-Guy-With-A-Guitar trope that has ruled the past five seasons, and also the dominance of winners from the South.

Beyond the judges, it’s going to take better contestants, and that means a better carrot to dangle than signing away your life to a management company. Mariah Carey or Aretha Franklin as judges could help, but it’s going to take more than a couple of pop stars to revive American Idol.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse