We’re just a few days away from the 11th season premiere of American Idol – and there’s a new rumor doing the rounds at the moment. Is long time Idol host Ryan Seacrest on the way out – set to be replaced by a cheaper alternative?

As everyone knows, Ryan has been with the Idol franchise since day one and along with Randy Jackson is the only remaining member of the original on camera team. Co-host Brian Dunkleman famously departed after season 1, judge Paula Abdul left at the end of Season 8 and Idol’s main mean man Simon Cowell split in 2010 after 9 seasons with the show.

Through it all the Idol juggernaut has remained as strong as ever – still regularly pulling in audiences in excess of 20 million on a weekly basis. So now apparently Fox are starting to wonder if Seacrest is really essential to the franchise. With a salary of $15 million a year and a deal that expires at the end of the new season, the network are reportedly wondering if they could opt for a cheaper host going forwards. But is Fox risking its smash hit franchise in order to save (quite a few) bucks?

Obviously a big factor in the Fox thinking is Simon Cowell. Many, myself included, thought the Idol franchise would falter following the departure of the show’s most famous face. And yet Idol didn’t. Last season the show averaged a terrific 26.23 million viewers a week. Not bad for a series in its 10th year!

But here’s the deal. Yep, those ratings are great – but season 9 actually averaged 29.95 million viewers – so the show was actually down over 10% year on year. Plus we have to remember that Cowell was replaced by two very big names in the music industry – Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. It wasn’t like he was replaced by an anonymous record industry exec. And I think a large part of the success of Season 10 was the curiosity factor of Tyler and Lopez. Now that the pair are no longer the new kids on the block – will Idol still rock the ratings in Season 11?

I would also argue that the Idol judging panel was designed to be fairly fluid. In the last few years we’ve seen Abdul, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres all come and go – with negligible ratings impact. And just head over the pond to the UK and the Britsh X Factor has been in a constant state of fluidity since the show launched. But a host is a different entity.

The fact is Seacrest does a terrific job hosting American Idol. It’s been said many times before but he truly does make it look easy and effortless. He’s warm and engaging with contestants, fires back at the judges and can handle the pressure when things go wrong (contestant breakdowns, show over-runs, technical issues). As someone who’s worked with many hosts over the years – including Cat Deeley from So You Think You Can Dance – I can tell you, it’s not an easy thing to do!

Just compare Ryan’s performance with the train wreck that was Steve Jones on The X Factor. I’ve said many times here on the site that Jones was the single worst aspect of the new Simon Cowell talent show. He was awkward, cold and totally unable to handle unscripted moments – most famously Rachel Crow’s elimination breakdown (the moment that I think will ultimately cost him his season 2 job!)

If Fox do choose to replace Seacrest they will need someone with a great deal of live studio experience to avoid a Steve Jones v2.0 situation. And those people are both few and far between – and expensive. Plus keep in mind that Seacrest brings significant promotion to Idol via his other media outlets – most notably his radio show and E! News hosting gig.

My instinct is that Idol’s ratings will show some significant slippage this season. J.Lo and Steven Tyler aren’t fresh to viewers anymore and though Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery has performed well in the charts, he’s hardly a memorable performer who’ll set the music world on fire. Plus it remains to be seen what impact both The X Factor and NBC’s The Voice will have on Idol’s ratings. Will viewers start to tire of music competition shows?

How Idol performs in the coming weeks may well have a big effect on Fox’s decision to bring back Seacrest. But what do you think? Is Ryan worth $15 million a year – or should Fox go with a cheaper option? And who could replace Ryan and do as equally good a job? Fire away…