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What Does Nigel Lythgoe’s Return Mean For ‘American Idol’?

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Well, the ever-revolving door over at the "American Idol" studios continues to spin nearly out of control. After the exit of Ellen DeGeneres and the show's record-label switch from Sony to Universal, and amid rampant rumors of new judges like Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler and the firing of Kara DioGuardi, it was announced this week that former executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is returning to the show after a two-year hiatus.

Now, this could be interesting.

The gossip that surrounded Nigel's departure from "Idol" in 2008 was that he had a beef with the show's other big alpha-male, Simon Cowell. If that's so, Simon's resignation from the show may have something to do with Nigel's seemingly sudden decision to sign a new two-year-contract with "Idol." Nigel's keeping mum on that, but he's made it pretty clear that Simon isn't the only regular judge he'd like to see leave the show, telling the press he'd replace the entire judging panel (even Randy Jackson, whom he called a "barnacle" in a Variety interview) if he had his druthers.

"I'm back because it was tough being away," Nigel told USA Today. "And it was tough to watch things going down. I was never happy with the four judges, and I was watching the chemistry sort of be lost."

But there's one familiar, friendly face that Nigel (as well as many longtime "Idol" viewers like myself) would like to see return to the judging table.

"I still love Paula [Abdul]. She's signed to CBS [for a new dance show], probably exclusively, but I'd recommend we have her in a heartbeat," Nigel confessed to USA Today. Incidentally, Nigel campaigned hard to have Paula join his other successful talent show, "So You Think You Can Dance," even keeping an open seat onstage for her for a while. Will there be a seat with Paula's name on it on "American Idol" Season 10? We shall see.

As for those J.Lo and Tyler rumors, Nigel knows gossip is good for business and buzz, so he's not confirming or denying anything just yet. "If [Jennifer Lopez] joins, I'm happy," he merely told Variety. Regarding Steven Tyler, he said: "He has come through that whole rock 'n' roll circus. Why wouldn't you want a legend there? You never know what he's going to say. That, as a TV producer, you're interested in."

Actually, Nigel, who recently defused rumors that he might judge "Idol" himself, would like to take the focus off the judges altogether. He explained to USA Today: "My concerns were over the last couple of years, we've lost sight of the fact that the most important people on the show are the young artists. It revolved around Kara coming in to make four judges, which often left no time for them to talk. Then it was about Paula leaving, and then about Ellen joining." Nigel also doesn't dig the idea of having guest judges, even though they played a prominent role during "Idol's" Season 9 Paula-less audition rounds and are a regular part of the "SYTYCD" format. Nigel simply wants to refocus on the contestants: "At the end of the day, the fundamental thing about 'American Idol' is that you take the burger-flipper [editor's note: or paint salesman!] and turn him into a star, with America's help in choosing."

Nigel helmed "Idol" when it was in its heyday, so he just may be the man to restore the faded series to its former luster. ("Nigel helped to define the show I created almost 10 years ago, mentoring our judging panel and nurturing our talent," show creator Simon Fuller told Variety. "His unbridled passion has been missed...I felt it was an important time to collaborate with Nigel once again to help redefine 'American Idol.') But Nigel has a tough job cut out, even for him: "Idol" ratings were down 9 percent and "Idol"-related Yahoo! searches were down a whopping 43 percent last season, and subsequent Season 9 iTunes downloads and ticket sales for the 2010 Idols Live Tour also nosedived. And despite Nigel's desire to shift the focus off the judges, many viewers (including, to a point, myself) truly do feel that without main judge Simon Cowell, there IS no "American Idol."

Which brings us back to that aforementioned rumored Nigel/Simon feud. When Simon Cowell left his original judging job on Britain's "Pop Idol" in 2004, it was a death knell for the program, which was basically displaced and replaced by Simon's hugely successful new talent show, "The X Factor." And now Simon has made the same move in the U.S., planning to launch the Stateside version of "The X Factor" in 2011. So get ready for Nigel and his alleged nemesis to engage the ultimate battle of the Brits for reality ratings next year.

Like I said, this could be interesting. Bring it on.

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