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Paula Abdul: Is another reality show in her future?

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Now that Fox has made it clear that American Idol is moving ahead without its popular (but polarizing) judge, is Paula Abdul about to become the most eligible bachelorette in television today? Many signs point to that possibility, as producers like Nigel Lythgoe and NBC reality guru Paul Telegdy have already indicated a willingness to work with the genial singer/dancer. Both have competition shows with judging panels — Telegdy’s network airs America’s Got Talent and Lythgoe exec produces So You Think You can Dance for Fox — so adding Abdul to either show would make sense from a continuity standpoint (to say nothing about what it could do for ratings).

But would it make sense for Abdul? While there’s little doubt that the former pop star can — and will — find ample opportunities beyond Idol, she’ll never score the kind of cash she could have received on the ninth season of TV’s most popular show (a source close to the negotiation said Abdul was offered a 30% raise, which would have amounted to a an eight-figure salary north of $10 million). “In our little bathtub here in Hollywood, everyone thinks she’s off her rocker to pass up money like that,”  says one reality show agent. “She’ll never get $5 to $10 million on a start-up show. It’s never going happen. She may have overplayed her hand.”

Even one Fox insider concedes that while it could be a boon to SYTYCD to have Abdul join Lythgoe and Mary Murphy on the judges’ panel, there’s “no way” she would earn close to what she netted on Idol. That’s why many Hollywood observers think she should swallow her pride and go back to the show that (re)made her a star. “I don’t think the move was really thought out,” says Scott Sternberg, Abdul’s former executive producer on Bravo’s short-lived Hey Paula. “Paula is always looking for attention but she was always on the same level [as Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest]. Her deal would have been rich. I don’t know who her handlers are, but someone needs to say, ‘Girl, go back one more season, at least.'”

But cold, hard cash may not be what Abdul is ultimately seeking. “For Paula, it’s not about money. It’s about respect,” opines Howard Bragman, Abdul’s former publicist. “Paula wants to feel respected. Paula has a definitive role and a definite place on Idol. What Fox has to be very cautious of is this: a hit show is [like] my chicken soup recipe. You don’t mess with it. Don’t underestimate the American public’s desire to want to tune into a train wreck. If I were Fox, I would do what I’d have to do to keep Paula.”

That doesn’t appear likely — at least for now. At the Fox press conference today for the nation’s TV critics, Chairman Peter Rice said the network is already on the lookout for guest judges to help fill the void (it already tapped Katy Perry and Victoria Beckham) and has until January to decide how (or whether) to permanently replace Abdul. But what if Abdul changes her mind in the next few days and comes crawling back to Fox? “I don’t deal with hypotheticals,” Fox’s head of reality Mike Darnell told EW. Darnell adds that the network is taking Abdul’s resignation at “face value” and is moving ahead without her.

So is at least one person on Madison Avenue. Media analyst Shari Anne Brill of Carat USA doesn’t think the show will suffer without the ever unpredictable Abdul. “While you do wonder what kind of loopy thing Paula will say next, that’s not why I tuned in,” Brill said. “It’s always for the performances and the snark fest coming out of Simon. Maybe Kara can step in and be Simon’s new sparring partner. And Simon always has Ryan to pick on.”