TCA 2012: 'American Idol' Producer Wants to See Judges Change Every Year

UPDATED: While Nigel Lythgoe wants Jennifer Lopez to stay with the show, he questions the pop star's "strange" admission to Ryan Seacrest that she's "99 percent" sure she's finished with "Idol."
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Nigel Lythgoe at summer TCA

Nigel Lythgoe is still in negotiations to renew his deal on American Idol, but he’s holding out an irrational hope that Jennifer Lopez will in fact stay with the show.

Steven Tyler already has confirmed that he is leaving the show, which saw double-digit ratings declines for its 11th season. And Lopez all but confirmed her exit during a July 12 call in to Ryan Seacrest’s radio show.

“I honestly feel like the time has come, that I have to get back to doing the other things I have put on hold because I love Idol so much,” Lopez told Seacrest. “I could keep doing Idol for the rest of my life, but that would be giving up a bunch of other things. I just feel like we had an amazing run.”

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But during the So You Think You Can Dance panel at the Television Critics Association press tour Monday, Lythgoe said he hopes Lopez gives Idol another season.

“She said 99 percent that she was leaving,” said Lythgoe, “which is a strange thing to say; you’re either leaving or you’re not. I’m hoping that 1 percent means she’s not leaving us.”

Later Lythgoe seemed to allow for the possibility that Lopez’s equivocation could be a ploy. “I still don't know why you'd say, ‘I’m 99 percent.’ I don't know if it's a negotiating tactic, I truly don’t,” he told The Hollywood Reporter following the session.

For the first time in its history, Idol was not the top-rated program of the season. NBC’s Sunday Night Football took that crown; the first time ever a sports franchise has been primetime’s No. 1 show. This has spurred some soul searching among Fox executives, who are said to be looking at ways to freshen up the franchise. 

“I would really like to see the judges change every year,” said Lythgoe.

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Pop star Mariah Carey is among those hotly rumored to join the Idol judging panel next season. And stars are more amenable to moonlighting as reality show judges for the visibility the gigs confer. Certainly, Lopez's time on Idol rejuvenated a flagging musical career. And Britney Spears and Demi Lovato are surely banking on a career shot-in-the-arm by joining Simon Cowell's The X Factor. And the still-formbidable Idol could presumably wrangle a rotating judging panel of A-list stars. 

But such a strategy would keep the show's contract lawyers -- not to mention myriad media outlets and blogs -- mighty busy. 

“It’s horrible to be in this position where [reporters are asking], ‘Who’s it going to be?’ There are thousands of names being thrown about."I try to deflect [the questions] by saying the Three Stooges,” Lythgoe added. “You can't negotiate with somebody in a public marketplace. Once you’ve negotiated with the one person you want, you have to balance that with who is around that person. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the front of the box.”

While there’s no judge intrigue on Lythgoe’s So You Think You Can Dance, the show did weather format changes for its most recent season, combining the performance and live eliminations into one weekly episode. 

“I thought it went without a hitch,” said Lythgoe. “We were live. None of us have ever done that before. Because we are live things happen; like [judge] Adam Shankman kissing me.”

The show has seen its ratings soften a little. But it also scored six Emmy nominations including a nom for outstanding reality competition series. And it continues to seed So You Think You Can Dance iterations globally, with one recently launched in Vietnam.

“If we make Fox money,” said Lythgoe, “they’re going to keep us.”

Meanwhile, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly told reporters following his executive session that he expects Lythgoe's deal to close, noting that "he's really valuable and that's just a negotiation that's going on; it's not a difficult one it's just one that needs to be concluded."


As for whether or not Idol could see new judges every season, the exec said that's part of the game. "I think change is going to be part of the show going forward," he noted, adding that Idol could see creative changes in its format going forward as well. "We're 12 years old, I think we've got to keep it fresh. The audience wants to see some discovery of something new on the bench, so we're going to keep playing with the formula."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.