As they gear up for American Idol‘s tenth season next year, producers are prepping big changes to boost declining ratings and the loss of longtime judge Simon Cowell. The show is reportedly close to a deal to bring back producer Nigel Lythgoe (who left in 2008) in an executive producer role while targeting new candidates including Justin Timberlake and Elton John as potential replacements for Cowell, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Replacing Cowell is the biggest obstacle for the show, but Lythgoe seems up to dealing with this challenge should he return. Lythgoe, one of the show’s original producers who left to work on So You Think You Can Dance, has said that should Cowell ever leave, he would uproot the entire Idol panel. Lythgoe has also gone on record as saying that the show’s current roster of judges — Randy Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi — isn’t very compelling and that he would be open to bringing back Paula Abdul, although she has since signed on with CBS’ upcoming Got to Dance.
Chris Isaak and Harry Connick, Jr. have been approached about replacing Cowell — and personalities as diverse as Howard Stern and Perez Hilton have expressed interest in the position — but Lythgoe is critical of having a fourth judge at all, saying that it distracts from viewers’ attention. With Randy Jackson the lone original Idol judge and DeGeneres in the midst of a multi-year contract, DioGuardi appears most likely to get the boot should producers replace Cowell and revert back to a three-judge format — and that’s the most likely scenario if Lythgoe doesn’t simply replace the entire judges’ table, as the Reporter speculates.
So who would take Cowell’s spot? Elton John is reportedly on both Lythgoe’s and executive producer Simon Fuller’s wish list of potential replacements, but the show has been unable to come close to a monetary agreement with the songwriter. Timberlake would be an even harder catch: While the pop star currently tops Fuller’s wish list, it’s unlikely he would have time due to his busy acting schedule and music career. (Both John and Timberlake’s reps have since denied their clients are considering the Idol gig.) One other possibility is Lythgoe himself, who presently serves as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance and who has earned the nickname “Nasty Nigel” from the British press for his harsh Cowell-esque criticisms on the U.K. show Popstars.