By Michael Slezak
June 21, 2010 at 07:07 PM EDT

This morning’s news that American Idol will launch its season 10 auditions July 17 in Nashville, Tenn., raised the inevitable question: When will Fox’s venerable ratings warhorse name a replacement for its departing superstar judge Simon Cowell? The cranky Brit, of course, made his Idol swan song during the May 26 season 9 finale, with no plans to return to U.S. television until the fall 2011 debut of the American version of his X Factor singing competition.

But don’t jump to conclusions and assume the July 17 audition kickoff is a hard and fast deadline for a Cowell replacement announcement, says a source close to the show. The announced Nashville date — as well as subsequent stops in Milwaukee, Wis., New Orleans, East Rutherford, N.J., Austin, Tex., and finally, San Francisco (on Aug. 19) — merely represent the un-televised, cattle-call portion of the audition rounds, during which tens of thousands of hopefuls will wait in lines at big stadium settings for the chance to sing in front of Idol producers.

Contestants won’t actually film in front of Idol‘s judging panel till “September-ish” says the source, who has not heard when the announcement about a Cowell replacement will be made or what the final lineup of season 10 judges will look like. The insider’s comments about a September start-date reiterate what Fox chairman Peter Rice said during the network’s upfronts presentation back in May. It’s also worth noting that in season 9, Idol taped its auditions using a rotating roster of guest judges to sit in for the exiting Paula Abdul, and that her replacement, Ellen DeGeneres, wasn’t announced till Sept. 9, 2009, and didn’t start taping episodes until the show’s Hollywood rounds.

Incidentally, season 9 auditions rounds got underway June 18, 2009, in Atlanta, a full month earlier than what we’ll see for the season 10 production schedule.

Does today’s flurry of Idol news — including a new minimum age requirement or a pit stop in the Garden State —  have you at all excited to find Lee DeWyze’s successor? And if you were Fox, what would be the ideal time to launch a Cowell replacement?

Follow Slezak on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

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