'American Idol': Ellen DeGeneres is out, and the guessing game begins
After days of furious rumors, Ellen DeGeneres' much-criticized tenure as the fourth judge on "American Idol" officially sputtered to an end Thursday after just one season, as TV’s top-rated show undergoes a massive overhaul.
Meanwhile, Deadline.com reported that Jennifer Lopez has signed to be a judge on the show, although by day’s end spokespersons for the producers and network had yet to confirm the news. Other unconfirmed reports had longtime Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler also hired for the judges' table.
Beyond the show’s pervasive cultural influence – including grooming top singers such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood - the next moves for “Idol” are of great importance to the TV industry. “Idol” has reshaped the race among the four major broadcast networks, helping Fox pile up enormous advantages among the young-adult viewers that advertisers crave. However, the show has suffered several seasons of ebbing ratings and saw especially sharp erosion the second half of this past season.
In a news release hustled out by Fox near the end of the day, DeGeneres said she told the producers a couple of months ago that the show "didn't feel like the right fit for me," partly because of increased work commitments elsewhere, including her popular daytime talk show.
But "I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings," she added.
DeGeneres was brought on for the ninth season last September – too late to participate in auditions taped earlier in the summer - as a replacement for Paula Abdul, who exited in a contract dispute. While some fans savored her lighthearted quips, DeGeneres was criticized by many "Idol" fans for having no background in the music industry and too often consuming precious time at the judges’ table to echo the sentiments of fellow judge Randy Jackson.
Early on, she also reportedly maintained frosty relations with Simon Cowell, the show's highest-profile judge. However, DeGeneres conducted a friendly interview with Cowell on her show last spring to memorialize his “Idol” departure. Next year, Cowell will start as a judge and producer on Fox’s American edition of his reality contest, "The X Factor," which is already a hit in Britain.
Of this season's four judges, only Jackson and Kara DioGuardi remain. But how long their tenure will last now seems an open question. The producers of “Idol,” Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment, are said to be in talks with former “Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe – who left the show almost exactly two years ago after reportedly butting heads with Cowell – to return to oversee the show and possibly serve as a judge. Lythgoe, who declined several requests for an interview, currently serves as a judge on Fox’s summer show “So You Think You Can Dance” and is said to favor a wholesale reinvention of “Idol.”
The addition of Lopez – J-Lo to fans – would certainly move him toward that goal. However, it was unclear whether Fox will move back to a three-judge format – or add yet another name to make a panel of four. Cowell’s exit sparked a celebrity gold rush for his seat at the judge’s table. Websites in recent days have been filled with rumors of candidates for the gig, including Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson, Harry Connick Jr., Chris Isaak, Jamie Foxx, Bret Michaels and Sean “P Diddy” Combs. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton has launched his own campaign as well.
The producers still have some time to figure out their alternatives, although the clock is ticking. “Idol” begins filming auditions with the judges in mid-September.
-- Scott Collins and Maria Elena Fernandez
Photo: Jennifer Lopez in concert in New York. June. Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
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