By James Hibberd
Updated January 08, 2013 at 08:57 PM EST
American Idol
Credit: Getty Images

Fox’s American Idol team walked a fine line during its press tour panel in Pasadena on Tuesday, telling critics that, yes, the feud between new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj is real. But producers and cast tried to convince reporters that their animosity isn’t personal and it was all about their passion for helping the show’s contestants.

“It’s authentic,” said Fox reality chief Mike Darnell of the feud. “There’s a passion on this group. They disagree on a lot of the talent … it’s not the girls, it’s everybody.”

“This is a very passionate panel,” Carey echoed. “It’s great it’s such a diverse group of people.”

“True chemistry only comes when you got people from diverse areas of music,” double-echoed executive producer Ken Warwick. “It’s good healthy critique.”

“The feud, whatever feud there has been, it’s not just between Nicki and Mariah,” triple-echoed producer Nigel Lythgoe. “Keith Urban and Randy Jackson have moments as well.”

Of course, the reports about Carey and Minaj the past few months — the leaked tape, so-called gun threat, the Twitter rants — had pretty much nothing to do with debating the virtues of Idol contestants. Perhaps the fights might have been sparked by panel disagreements at some point, but what the public heard was heated vitriol toward each other. And somehow we just don’t buy that Jackson will launch into any profane anti-Urban rants anytime soon. “Not every argument is about a contestant,” Darnell agreed after the panel. “But most of them are. … a lot of [the headlines] were rumor, a lot of that was trumped up. There’s passion on the panel. ..and at times its extraordinarily entertaining.”

At one point a critic asked Carey and Minaj to say something nice about each other. That was easy — for Minaj at least. “That actually is easy, I say nice things about Mariah all the time,” she said. “She’s one of my favorite artists of all time, she’s really shaped a generation of singers. To be on a panel with her is kind of crazy… all these singers that come in aspire to be Mariah Carey.”

When it came to her turn, Carey seemed to struggle. “That was obviously a very sweet thing to say,” she started. Then she noted they did a video together (“Up Out My Face”). “It was one of my favorite videos and songs.” Carey said she always felt Minaj “was going to go very far” and finally — and this is a pretty rich thing to say when you’re asked to compliment somebody else — “I’m grateful for anything nice she or anyone else would say about me.”

Asked how the duo have since “made up” after their fight (which is an assumption — they could just be acting nice for the publicity stop), Minaj quipped, “I put on my sex tape,” then added: “We’re professionals … you ever have an argument with someone you worked with?”

Whether they love or hate each other, whether it’s all real or partial theater, Darnell seemed bullish that the sparks will result in a strong season of Idol. “This panel has reinvigorated the show,” Darnell said. “It’s very tough to get through to Hollywood … there’s too many shows on the air like this and they’re all taking each other down a little bit. But this is still the king of the shows and it’s the only one that’s making stars, period.”

The panelists also revealed that this season will have a stronger female lineup in years past, sending more women than men to Hollywood, and might bust the “white boy with a guitar” trend. “It’s a girls season to lose this year,” Jackson said.