'Idol' pursuing Elton John, Justin Timberlake

THR EXCLUSIVE: Nigel Lythgoe returning to run show

Reality producer Nigel Lythgoe is near a deal to to executive produce Fox's "American Idol" -- and that could spell trouble for the current judges panel.

Fox is seeking to bring back Lythgoe, who shepherded "Idol" for its first seven seasons, to work on the hit series as part of a master plan to reboot the show following the exit of top judge Simon Cowell.

In addition, "Idol" fans can add Justin Timberlake to the list of potential Cowell replacements. The pop star is on "Idol" producer 19 Entertainment chief Simon Fuller's wish list, along with legendary singer Elton John.

Lythgoe helped launch the "Idol" phenomenon in the U.K. with "Pop Idol" creator Fuller. He currently produces and judges Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance."

Two years ago, Lythgoe left "Idol" as part of a shake-up by Fox and 19 Entertainment to freshen the series. But ratings continued to slip, and Lythgoe often has criticized the series, saying the contestants and judges panel weren't very compelling.

Industry rumors have been circulating for weeks that Fuller and Fox are considering not just replacing Cowell but dumping the entire judges panel.

And the biggest public advocate of such a nuclear option is Lythgoe, who told a reporter in April that if he was in charge, he would replace all the remaining judges. Lythgoe also was a critic of having four judges on the show instead of three, saying having an extra judge distracts viewers from focusing on the competitors.

Pulling off a dramatic slate-cleaning maneuver depends on Fox signing multiple new judges, however, when not one has been found.

Sources say Randy Jackson, who has another year left on his contract, is the most likely to survive any purge.

Booting Ellen DeGeneres could be problematic; she has a multiyear deal at the network. A source in DeGeneres' camp said she's prepared to fulfill her "Idol" contract.

Kara DioGuardi's one-year-at-time deal has yet to be renewed.

When asked whom he would choose to judge "Idol," Lythgoe has cited Elton John, Usher and Paula Abdul.

John previously has been reported as a potential "Idol" candidate. Sources said Fuller has been after John for some time, though coming to a financial agreement has proved difficult.

John and Timberlake are part of a list that includes Chris Isaak, Harry Connick Jr. and other celebrity music industry names. Given Lythgoe's experience judging "Dance," it's not unreasonable to think he might be considered for a seat.

Executive producer Ken Warwick, who stepped up to run "Idol" after Lythgoe departed in 2008, is expected to continue on the series. Lythgoe and Warwick effectively functioned like producing co-pilots -- along with Fuller and Fremantle's Cecile Frot-Coutaz -- and that arrangement is likely to continue.