The Top 4 performance episode of FOx’s American Idol earned 21.8 million viewers, the smallest audience for a Tuesday episode since 2003. The next night’s episode was good for 22.9 million viewers.

Tomorrow night, we will learn who this year’s winner is—David Cook or David Archuletta. But Fox officials are reportedly concerned about the drop in ratings for next year. They want to protect their lucrative franchise. They are right to be worried.

I have two reasons for this year’s downturn. Too many freaking ads, and a couple of hard-to-watch contestants.

People tell me that adolescent girls are the ones keeping David Archuletta around. Yipes. I find this kid utterly unwatchable…worse than trying to watch Hillary Clinton talk about why she plans to go all the way to the Denver party convention.

The other reason is the out-of-control ads. I gave up trying to watch the show in real-time before the season began. I can watch an entire one-hour Idol episode in about fifteen minutes. The vignettes, chatter and ads are intolerable. The only ad I stop the DVR for is the Ford ad featuring the cast, because I’m curious to see what they came up with. It’s always an original spot.

The show needs re-tooling, and Fox should start with replacing at least two of the judges.

So-called mentors need to be chosen with greater care. Andrew Lloyd Weber? Give me a break. Dolly Parton? Sorry. They were certainly better than some of last year’s losers, like Peter Noone and Lulu. But they need to get some contemporary performers who are engaged in the show. This season they had Mariah Carey, but the diva’s hugs of a few contestants were done with such apprehension one would have thought the singers had messed their pants.

This year, they introduced an excruciating segment in which they allow people who e-mailed questions to the show to ask contestants and judges the questions live on the show. This is worse than when Jay Leno and Martha Stewart have children on their shows.

It’s still a good idea. But let the reinvention begin.

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