'Idol' Panic: Secret Plot to Replace Mariah Carey With Jennifer Lopez Fails (Exclusive)

Jennifer Lopez Mariah Carey - H 2013
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Jennifer Lopez Mariah Carey - H 2013

The plan to bring back Lopez midseason was abandoned when Carey's team threatened legal action, sources tell THR.

With ratings in a steep slide, American Idol producers and Fox executives in recent weeks hatched a dramatic plan to jump-start the show: replace judge Mariah Carey with Jennifer Lopez, according to knowledgeable sources.

These sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that Carey, who was touted as the big new addition to the judge’s panel this year, responded with a threat of litigation. With that, the plan was dropped, though Idol's producers still are negotiating with Lopez -- who served as a popular judge during the past two seasons -- to appear on the show’s finale in May. And insiders say a search already has begun to replace Carey, most likely Nicki Minaj and possibly the entire judge’s panel for next season.

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"This is just another ridiculous Idol judge rumor, likely started by talks of Jennifer performing on the finale," a Fox spokeswoman tells THR in a statement. Producer Fremantle NorthAmerica declined comment. A rep for Carey denies these allegations. Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe tells THR, "I have not been included in any conversation regarding replacing Mariah with Jen this season."

American Idol kicked off its 12th season on solid enough footing. Earning a 6.0 rating in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic and 17.9 million total viewers in its January return, the 17 percent dip was less precipitous than some of the bigger drops in recent years. But the months since have been less kind. The Wednesday performance show is averaging a 4.3 rating in 18-to-49, its worst performance since its inaugural season in 2001. And it is dropping nearly every week.

Even worse for Idol, the robust reboot of NBC’s The Voice with Shakira and Usher recently has seen ratings climb to a 5.2 in the demo during the same week Idol bottomed out with a series-low 2.8. Adding insult to injury, Idol made headlines last week when preliminary numbers showed its total viewers for a results show was beaten by a repeat of CBS' The Big Bang Theory.

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Sources say Fox reality chief Mike Darnell and Fremantle’s Cecile Frot-Coutaz have been especially concerned about the Idol ratings trajectory, and they hoped that a surprise shake-up on the judges' panel would help. Carey, a multiplatinum and Grammy-winning singer, is perhaps Idol's most pedigreed judge ever. But despite her eight-figure salary, she has seemed passive and disengaged in her comments on the show, failing to generate the type of fan following that Lopez had when she judged. 

By contrast, Minaj has turned into Idol's sharp-tongued firebrand, especially seated next to more vanilla judge Keith Urban and stalwart Randy Jackson. Nonetheless, internal Fox research is said to show that Minaj is not a hit with some of the show's audience. "The core viewer is a Midwestern, Southern, older woman who is threatened by Nicki’s aggressiveness," says one knowledgeable source.

Producers are said to have pushed for the pairing of Carey and Minaj, thinking it would provide for a panel of diverse opinions and make for good TV if they were in conflict. But Idol insiders fear the dynamic has turned off some loyal fans.

Because producers backed off their plan to shake up the show midseason, attention is said to already have turned to next season. A source who has been approached as a possible judge replacement tells THR that Idol producers are looking for “not necessarily a star” to join the show. That might include a music professional with strong credentials. 

Michael O'Connell contributed to this report.