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Nigel Lythgoe Addresses Future of 'American Idol,' With or Without Jennifer Lopez

Will the show's sole female judge make a hasty exit? "It might come down to that in the end," "Idol's" executive producer tells THR.

Nigel Lythgoe Idol set P
Mark Leibowitz

American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe did something quite uncharacteristic following Thursday’s elimination show: He allowed himself a brief moment to mourn. “I lost my favorite tonight,” he told The Hollywood Reporter minutes after Joshua Ledet was sent home, leaving 16-year-old diva-in-training Jessica Sanchez and 21-year-old aspiring troubadour Phillip Phillips to battle it out at next week's finale. “But I’m thrilled for Jessica and Phillip; they’re great kids,” he continued. “These are the best three we’ve had as a threesome.”

But in looking back at Idol’s 11th season on the air, Lythgoe, who sat out seasons 8 and 9, is also forced to think ahead -- to the possibility of a Jennifer Lopez-less panel next year and a call for “tweaks and creative reconfigurations” to Idol, as Fox president Kevin Reilly noted during the network's upfront presentation Monday. It’s still America’s No. 1-rated show but has seen a 25 percent decline in viewership since last year’s run.

VIDEO: 'American Idol': Final Three Visit Hometowns 

If it were up to Lythgoe, Lopez -- who recently told Ellen DeGeneres "I miss doing other things" -- would continue on for at least another year. “When you've got the most beautiful judge in the world, an artist who speaks from the heart and with meaning, why lose that?” he says. “And why go through a training period every year?” Still, he admits, “It might come down to that in the end.”

Lythgoe says he doesn't know whether Lopez will return, but he believes the issue will get resolved one way or another in the coming weeks. “Fox and Fremantle have been concentrating on X Factor since, for them, it’s the next big program, along with getting the upfront out of the way. Now they’re getting to talk about Idol.”

VIDEO: 'American Idol': Jennifer Lopez Wishes She Could Mentor More

But that’s not to say that Lythgoe is opposed to a judge revamp, if the situation calls for it. In the past, he’s told THR that getting a rotating panel of credible artists who happen to be between album and tour cycles (think John Mayer) is not a completely radical idea. "Maybe the stars have got to move on and you could do revolving, musical chairs, if you excuse the Voice pun,” he cracks.

As for Reilly’s comments, Lythgoe downplays the severity of said changes, telling THR: “It’s always difficult when you make a statement like that and the explanation hasn't been shown. But to be frank, we look at what tweaks we can make every year. I haven’t spoken to Kevin [yet], but maybe he has ideas to impart. I’m always open.”

Ultimately, Lythgoe insists, speculation comes with the Idol territory. “I went through all this with Simon [Cowell] leaving, where people said it would be the end of the show,” he recalls. “It’s not at the end of the show because it’s not about the judges, it's all about young talent.”

That said, he adds, “I'm hoping that our judges will be back.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin