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'American Idol' Looking to Downsize for Season 12, Say Sources

As the search for new judges begins again, the reality of the Fox show's slumping ratings sets in.

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For FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Groundhog Day arrives every July. At least it’s been that way for the past four years or so as the company’s flagship show American Idol has seen a revolving group of judges come and go, starting with Paula Abdul’s exit after season 8, followed by Simon Cowell in 2010 and Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres not long after. 

There’s rarely a summer off from the casting headache, either, because even in times when the Idol panel is set (like between seasons 10 and 11, when Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler signed on as judges), the Fremantle executive has to deal with The X Factor. Frot-Coutaz laughed off the pressure back in April, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I think I'm getting used to it.” But America’s patience is wearing thin. With Idol ratings down some 25 percent from last year (but still averaging an impressive 20 million viewers), resulting in lost ad revenue and the equally pressing problem of perception, it’s a call for dramatic action.

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Sources tell THR that the show is looking to downsize significantly for season 12, cutting budgets, staff -- and, of course, salaries, which will make recruiting top pop talent (like Fergie, Nicki Minaj or Will.I.Am) to fill vacancies all the more challenging. In addition, reports that Lopez, who earned between $15 million and $20 million on Idol, was angling for another raise (her third in as many years) are true, say insiders, while Tyler’s motivation to exit seems to be more music-focused: As a touring artist, he can make better money on the road with Aerosmith and promoting a new album than he would filibustering on a soundstage in Los Angeles.

Still, the rocker’s departure ultimately caught many in Idol’s extended family off-guard. By most accounts, his announcement wasn’t planned far in advance, but rather, like almost all things Idol, came together at the last minute. Lopez was more methodical in her selective teasing, spilling a hint of hesitation to NBC’s Today but ultimately giving the big news to her pal, Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who announced it Friday on his radio show.

As for Randy Jackson, his return is not guaranteed either, but the Idol staple has one ace up his sleeve: Mariah Carey, whom he manages. Us Weekly and other outlets have suggested that she would take a judge’s seat while he might move to more of a mentor role for the contestants. It certainly would ease what could be a harsh transition to have the reassuring Jackson stick around. And he’d be making out nicely, too -- receiving pay for his role on the show and a percentage of Carey’s earnings as her representative and likely orchestrator of the deal.

VIDEO: Jennifer Lopez's 6 Most Memorable 'American Idol' Moments

But casting Carey would be expensive (though Fox could try to bring down the price by noting how much Lopez benefited via her music and endorsements by promoting herself on TV's No. 1 stage). More important, it could infuriate X Factor’s Cowell (still a friend of Jackson's), who had the singer booked for his season one judges’ house episode, but Carey was ultimately grounded in New York due to Hurricane Irene. X Factor's highly competitive L.A. Reid, who is widely credited for orchestrating her massive 2005 comeback album, The Emancipation of Mimi, which he executive produced, might not be pleased to see the diva judge Idol, either. If it’s a programming war Fox is looking for, they might just find it in hiring Carey.

One thing is certain: Host Seacrest is locked up for the next two seasons, with Idol producers having agreed to pay him $15 million per season earlier this year, and it will be in large part the multihyphenate's job to steer the ship back to shore. Still, it doesn't help that so far in the season 12 audition process, producers have seen few standouts, says a source, and generally have been unimpressed with the talent turnout.

VIDEO: Steven Tyler's 6 Most Memorable 'American Idol' Moments 

According to other well-placed insiders, in the hours that followed both Tyler’s and Lopez’s announcements, a mild panic seemed to set in for those intimately involved with the show as war room-like meetings behind closed doors were hastily assembled and cell phones beeped nonstop. Public opinion came down fast and furious, too. Among the revelations: In the end, superstars Lopez and Tyler saw their careers flourish with lucrative endorsement opportunities and music on the charts but didn’t really help the Idol franchise; in fact, they might have hurt it. After all, this year’s finale was the show’s lowest rated ever, even counting season 1, which aired -- wouldn’t you know it -- during the summer.

Idol this season commanded between $468,100 and $502,900 for a 30-second commercial spot, according to Ad Age, second only to Sunday Night Football among TV broadcasts. But the ratings drop likely will impact those rates -- and with it, the money Fox and Fremantle spend to produce the show, which is believed to be in the $2 million-per-episode range. Production budget cuts could impact the format of the show as well, affecting the number or length of location shoots and the size of crews contracted. A taping with mentor Jimmy Iovine, for example, would typically have 10 people on duty; future sessions might find one person having to do the job of two -- a reality many working Americans are all too familiar with.

Fox and Fremantle had no comment, but one source close to the production disputes the notion that Idol is trimming the fat, labeling the reporting as “inaccurate.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin