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Eyeing J-Lo, 'Idol' banks on judges' rejuvenation

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, July 31, 2010; C01

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF.

Imagine if, when Jerry Seinfeld decided he'd made enough money on "Seinfeld" and pulled the plug on the show, NBC had kept it going and replaced not only Jerry but Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander, leaving only -- Newman! (Wayne Knight.)

That's what we're seeing at Fox's "American Idol." The implosion of a TV-ratings supernova has begun.

Singer-dancer-actress Jennifer Lopez is nailing down a deal to replace comedian-judge Ellen DeGeneres. "Idol's" acerbic British judge and show star Simon Cowell is long gone and shriveled rocker Steven Tyler is the current front-runner to take his place. The singing competition's tightly wound songwriter-judge Kara DioGuardi's contract has not been renewed and, hopefully, she's not holding her breath.

Reporters Who Cover Television gnawed on their fingernails Friday at Summer TV Press Tour 2010, waiting for word that Fox had wrapped the deal to replace Ellen with J-Lo, who trade papers suddenly discovered is considered to have been one of the best mentors ever to appear on the show.

So far, no one by any name but "unnamed source" is saying the deal is done. But for J-Lo, a move to "Idol" would mark a return to the Fox network. Like ex-"Idol" judge Paula Abdul, J-Lo was a dancer first; she got her big TV break as a backup dancer on the network's "In Living Color" sketch comedy show in the '90s. Most recently, Lopez appeared in the flick "The Back-up Plan," which was a far cry from her 1997 starring role in "Selena."

The network is also reportedly in talks with Tyler to replace Cowell, who announced in January that he was decamping to produce and star in "Idol's" rival "The X Factor" -- also for Fox. Tyler's the front man of Aerosmith -- the one who looks like a Beverly Hills matron just coming from Pilates class.

As for sophomore judge DioGuardi, there is much chatter that she's out and the show would be returned to its original, three-judge format. Only Randy Jackson, who has another year on his contract, is considered likely to return to the show in January.

The gutting of the judges' table is not a huge surprise since Nigel Lythgoe is being brought back to executive-produce the show. Lythgoe had shepherded "Idol" for years before leaving over arguments about its direction. Last season's quick fixes, including casting DeGeneres, blew up in Fox's face with the finale attracting 24 million viewers which, while a hefty-size audience in today's TV environment, is the franchise's smallest finale audience since its first season, when "Idol" was a summer show. It's about 12 million viewers shy of its finale crowd just four years ago.

This spring, Lythgoe made a part-time job out of talking about how he would get rid of all the judges on the show if he were king, because they had no chemistry and Ellen was a disappointment. Hard to argue either point.

DeGeneres said Thursday that she was stepping down because of her busy workload on her daytime talk show.

On Friday morning, "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest was working like a little beaver on his nationally syndicated morning radio show to make sure everyone around the country knew Ellen made the decision to leave. Seriously, it was her call. She made the decision. Herself. For real. He swears it's true.

To clear up any confusion, Seabiscuit stated, "Ellen has left the show," adding, helpfully, "she decided to leave herself." To drive the point home, Seabiscuit read Ellen's statement that Fox put out late Thursday, explaining that she went to the producers and told them that it wasn't a good fit -- she wasn't comfortable criticizing contestants, and she needed to leave.

"I had the chance to speak to Ellen yesterday, last night actually, and we talked about basically what I just read, she said it's all true," Seabiscuit emphasized, once more. "That's really the reason for it.

"We love Ellen and will certainly miss her. That is the latest news," he said, forlornly. Then he got serious: "But you should know that exactly what you're reading and exactly what she said, that's why she did decide to leave 'American Idol.' "

But in his Seabiscuitian way, he managed to get one dig in. "It's not like she needs the work," he snickered to his co-hosts.

'Law & Order' goes west

NBC's new "Law & Order: Los Angeles" is continuing to cast roles -- and yes, it's still supposed to premiere in September though its debut just got moved one week later into the month, the network announced Friday.

Terrence Howard is joining the cast of "LOLA," as the show has been nicknamed; he will rotate with co-star Alfred Molina as deputy district attorney, series creator Dick Wolf told TV critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2010 on Friday.

Corey Stoll has also been added to the cast, playing star Skeet Ulrich's police detective partner.

Critics held out hope that Wolf had found a cable network to keep "Law & Order: The Mothership" alive -- having already written their big feature stories for the day when it would officially become the longest-running series in TV history, or whatever. NBC canceled the show in May after a 20-year run that tied, but did not break, "Gunsmoke's" record.

It's not happening, Wolf said.

"That's business. That's life. Everything on TV is born under a death sentence. They just don't tell you the execution date," Wolf said, grimly.

Asked if his salary or other money issues on the show had caused talks to fall apart, Wolf snarled, "You can't believe we're going to discuss negotiations!"

"In the 25 years I've been continuously on the air at NBC, we've never failed to make a deal when there was a deal to be made," he snapped.

Yes, when asked sensitive questions at a press tour, Dick Wolf tends to turn into that third-grade teacher who made you stand at the front of the class with your nose placed inside the little circle she'd drawn on the chalkboard if she caught you writing with your left hand. In both cases, they were just trying to make you a better person.

ABC fills an exec spot

ABC parent Disney made it official Friday: The broadcast network is replacing its hastily departed entertainment chief, Steve McPherson, with Paul Lee -- the guy who's been giving MTV a run for its money over at cable network ABC Family by redefining "family" to mean 10- to 28-year-old viewers.

McPherson returned from vacation this week and voluntarily resigned. He later announced that he had hired a pit-bull of a lawyer to warn trade publications and Web sites to think twice about the speculative stories they've been writing about the cause of McPherson's abrupt departure.

Lee's appointment is effective immediately. His work is cut out for him: He must bolster ratings at a network that ended the 2009-10 season in third place among the big four, just slightly ahead of NBC.

Like McPherson, Lee will be in charge of developing, marketing and scheduling programs on ABC's lineup; like McPherson, he will also oversee ABC Studios, which produces series, mostly for ABC but also for other networks. (CBS's "Criminal Minds" and "The Amazing Race," for instance, are ABC Studio co-productions.)

Lee's first assignment: coming to Summer TV Press Tour 2010 on Sunday to appear at what was supposed to be McPherson's executive Q&A session, during which Lee will answer questions about ABC's new prime-time slate, which was green-lit, produced, scheduled and marketed by McPherson. Should be interesting.

Since Lee became president of ABC Family in 2004, he's added to the basic-cable network such shows as sci-fi soap "Kyle XY," teen-pregnancy drama "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," teen murder-mystery "Pretty Little Liars," college campus dramedy "Greek," teen-gymnast drama "Make It or Break It" and teen-fat camp drama "Huge."

With these series, ABC Family has had six years of growth and its audience has more than doubled among 12- to 34-year-olds and 18- to 34-year-olds. It is now the No. 2 cable network in prime time among 12- to 34-year-old females, No. 3 with female teens -- no small feat for a network that's still home to "The 700 Club."

"Paul's success at ABC Family is as amazing as it is indisputable, and I'm looking forward to his continued success on ABC," the overly titled Disney/ABC Media Networks co-chair cum Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney said giddily in Friday's announcement.

No word on who's replacing Lee at ABC Family.

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