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'American Idol' Judge Drama: Coke and Pepsi at War Over Nicki Minaj (Exclusive)

UPDATED: Sources tell THR a four-member panel is coming together that will also include a Latin heartthrob and a country star.

Nicki Minaj Pepsi Commercial Idol Coca-Cola Split - H 2012

As the next phase of American Idol auditions draws near -- specifically, the part we see on television where pop star hopefuls perform for a panel of celebrity judges -- some behind-the-scenes drama is brewing among top brass at the Fox show. You could even say it's fizzing over.

According to a source with close ties to the show, longtime rivals Coke and Pepsi are at war again -- but not about market share, rather over hitmaker Nicki Minaj. The rapper and singer, whose colorful, cartoon-like style has made her among the most successful new acts of the past three years, is at the top of the list for the open seat on season 12 of Idol. But as the new face of Pepsi, an endorsement deal that includes commercials along with touring and album promo, Idol sponsor Coke is none too thrilled at the prospect. The leading soda company has been an Idol partner since season one, at a cost of $26 million per year, according to reports. The show ran into a similar problem when longtime sponsor Ford got wind of judge Jennifer Lopez's commercial deal with Fiat.   

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If Fox and FremantleMedia execs have their way, this year's panel would consist of Minaj, previously announced judge Mariah Carey, a country star (the leading candidate is Keith Urban, says an insider) and a Latin artist (Enrique Iglesias is believed to be the No. 1 choice). In March, Minaj showed genuine empathy toward those who compete on Idol, telling THR special correspondent and Idol alum Didi Benami: "It's very difficult to be picked apart. That rejection thing is heavy." (See video below.)

With the show's many production partners, Idol has been prone to insider squabbling and indecision. A source tells The Hollywood Reporter the latest judges shuffle is no different, only this time, it's 19 Entertainment's Marc Graboff, former West Coast head of NBC and now president of CORE Media (launched in May as a newly branded version of the former CKx), who's being shut out. Mike Darnell and Cecile Frot-Coutaz "are not consulting Graboff," an insider says of the Fox alternative programming chief and CEO of FremantleMedia.  

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Curiously, the big unknown is the show's longest-sitting judge Randy Jackson. As Carey's co-manager and longtime collaborator, he's not going anywhere, but his role could be diminished, as others have reported. In fact, THR has learned that he might step into a mentor role instead of Jimmy Iovine. But mainly, he'll be around to serve as a sort of "comfort blanket" for Carey. A source close to production says reports of an Iovine exit are "not accurate."

Reps for Jackson and Iovine have not responded to THR's request for comment. Fox and FremantleMedia declined comment.  

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin