Television

The 'Idol' Judge Rumor Train Chugs Along, But Don't Make Bets Quite Yet

 Ellen DeGeneres

lEllen DeGeneres, seen here arriving at the American Idol finale in May, announced her departure from the show yesterday. Chris Pizzello/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Pizzello/AP

Here's what we know about American Idol right now — even those of us out here among all the TV journalists: Ellen DeGeneres is gone from the judging panel. That's new as of yesterday.

Simon Cowell is gone from the judging panel — that's not new at all.

That would leave Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, two judges distinguished by the fact that they never said anything interesting. They lack Cowellian bite; they lack Abdullian whimsy. More to the point, they lack the ability to reliably be right about music, which Cowell had in spades, and which Paula Abdul had more often than she sometimes got credit for. (Remember, if you were terrible, she complimented your clothes. She didn't not know good from bad, in the way Kara and Randy often don't.)

What we have, aside from this limited information, is an abundance of unconfirmed reports. But keep in mind that a lot of people have vested interests in what the truth is, and are not above starting a rumor they like. (Such as, "The guy whose agent I am is totally going to be the next Idol judge."). It's important to keep one's powder dry.

So what's going to happen? One possibility is that the entire judging panel will be rebooted and DioGuardi and Jackson relieved of their positions. While that's probably what should happen for the good of the show, it reads a little too much like the sort of daring approach favored by people who are not in the process of making a decision on a high-profile project in a risk-averse business.

[Sidebar: At a panel discussion yesterday for Showtime's new Matt LeBlanc comedy Episodes, which looks very funny, showrunner David Crane, who spent years on Friends, seemed to wash his hands of network television. He said, among other things, that it's run on a steady diet of "fear and panic." That's quite true, and it's a very wise thing to keep in mind at a moment like this. Don't look for the smartest move; look for the move "least likely to be blamed on me as a cockamamie idea gone horribly awry, meaning I must be replaced for the sake of credibility."]

So are they cleaning house? Maybe, maybe not. There is, however, a fresh report that DioGuardi is being shown the door. If that's true, it could be that they're keeping just Randy Jackson. Or it could mean that they're negotiating at this moment with him about how to get him out of what remains of his contract so that they can indeed start fresh.

Okay. So if these judges — or at least two of them, or maybe three of them, or maybe all of them — are leaving, then who's coming in?

Again: We don't really know for sure. The most prominent talk at the moment is swirling around Jennifer Lopez, who did once appear on the show as a mentor — and who was less obnoxious in that role than many expected. Lopez sounds about right for Idol: safe, very mainstream, famous but not scandalous, once considered a hot property but now probably not objectionable to your parents. It fits, at least with what networks tend to do in the face of unwelcome change. There are enough reports of this one, and it makes enough sense, that I'd be surprised if it turned out not to be true.

There is also talk about Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Again: famous. Again: has some appeal to the older half of the Idol demographic, which is teenagers' parents. Might happen, might not, but the fact that he's an established, mostly nonthreatening presence at this point has some logical appeal from the perspective (remember, always remember: fear and panic!) of the show.

Now, if the Kara/J.Lo/Tyler reports are true, then Lopez and Tyler might join Jackson for a three-judge panel, and we could be done. But if Jackson leaves, there could still be another new judge. In other words: We don't even know how many people we're looking for. (Though if they do clean house, I personally doubt they'd go with four judges again, since four judges made for an obviously over-cluttered show that was even harder to bring in on time than before.)

Who's on the rest of the rumored list? One name is Jessica Simpson. Now, not everyone has to be a wit. Not everyone has to be smart or funny, or smart and funny. But when I look at Jessica Simpson, I think, "She has been famous for a long time, and I don't remember her saying, at any time, anything interesting."

That doesn't necessarily make her a bad person — there are undoubtedly famous people who save their sparkling conversations for family. But if you're going to be an American Idol judge, you need the ability to speak extemporaneously in an at least moderately interesting fashion. That one seems unlikely to me.

Elsewhere, there have been mentions of Justin Timberlake (pardon my informal response: OH YEAH RIGHT) and Elton John (less unimaginable, but still probably somebody's pipe dream), on top of the previously mentioned Chris Isaak and Harry Connick Jr.

When will we know more? Probably Monday. Monday is Fox's day at press tour, and in January, Fox's day at press tour was where they chose to announce that Simon Cowell wasn't returning but was going on to create The X Factor. If they can keep a lid on it over the weekend (as far as the rumors becoming so intense that they have to officially confirm), they might pop the cork then on whatever their plans are, or at least on more than we know now.

Of course if the drumbeat throughout today becomes so overwhelming that Fox has no choice but to comment, then you could get an official confirmation sooner.

Until then, don't believe everything you read. In fact, don't entirely believe anything you read. We're in a hold, whether all these reports make it sound that way or not.

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