August 06, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Even when it’s not on the air, American Idol can still generate the juiciest drama on TV. Days before Idol was set to begin auditions for its 10th season, Ellen DeGeneres made the jaw-dropping announcement that she would resign her post as judge after just one less-than-stellar season. That kicked off a flurry of reports that, with Simon Cowell departed, the entire judges’ table could be overturned; ex-Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe (a judge himself on So You Think You Can Dance) would be back to run the program; and celebrities as wildly different as Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and even Justin Timberlake might be stepping in. Fox has so far kept its lips sealed. At the Television Critics Association gathering on Aug. 2, network chairman Peter Rice would say only that ”much of the information that has been written is accurate,” leaving the status of less-starry panelists Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson (who has a year left on his contract) uncertain. According to a source familiar with the negotiations, it’s likely Lythgoe will return, and that Jennifer Lopez will be sitting at the judges’ table come fall. Either way, the new panel will be in place when judges join the audition process in mid-September. (Right now, producers are screening season 10 hopefuls.)

The retooling comes at a critical juncture for the aging franchise, which took a 9 percent hit in viewership last season thanks in large part to a charisma-free group of contestants. But will Idol‘s impending changes be good for Fox — or the competition? ”Anytime there is a disruption and change in fundamental elements of the show, there’s an opportunity for an accelerated decline in ratings,” says one suit at a rival network. ”Simon Cowell was integral to the show. No matter who they replace him with, there’s risk. It’s still going to be No. 1, but anytime we see time-period declines, it’s good for us.”

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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