Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice immediately addressed Paula Abdul's departure from American Idol and confirmed that Katy Perry and Victoria Beckham will be guest judges in the audition process, during the executive Q&A at Fox's portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour Aug. 6.
"Everyone is aware Paula will not be returning to Idol and it's something that's been very saddening to us," Rice said. "The live show starts in January and in the meantime we'll come up with a solution and replacement for Paula."
All of the top Fox execs attending the press tour characterized Abdul's departure as "sad." That includes Rice, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who joined Rice on the dais; and Fox Networks Chairman Tony Vinciquerra and reality czar Mike Darnell, who were in the room during the session.
Despite being asked by critics numerous ways, numerous times whether there's still a chance Abdul could make a deal to return to Idol, the execs' maintained their focus is on replacing Abdul. After the session, Vinciquerra was asked whether the deal has been taken off the table. "We're moving on," Vinciquerra said.
Former Idol exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, appearing on a TCA panel for Fox's So You Think You Can Dance prior to the exec session, cast doubt as to whether the Abdul is absolutely out of the Idol picture, saying "I still don't know that she's gonna leave Idol. Until Idol goes on the air, there are always opportunities for renegotiations."
However, after the exec session, Darnell said, "That's just Nigel's opinion."
Darnell said Fox will be looking to replace Abdul with "someone with their own persona."
Rice characterized the change as one the network was not planning on but that they now have to see at as a positive opportunity to bring new chemistry to the show. The plan between now and January, when Idol returns to Fox in primetime, is to seek a new judge who brings new chemistry to the show.
"What we need to find is someone who has great chemistry" with the judges, host Ryan Seacrest and the contestants, Rice said. "It's really a casting job."
Reilly added that assembling the right personalities into a format that works is part of the job of the producer. He referenced several successes over the years that great producers have had in doing so, such as Dick Wolf's changes to the Law & Order franchise. "When you've got that kind of producer, I'm not saying it's easy, but that's part of what top producers do," Reilly said. "We're pretty confident they're going to do that."
Abdul was the only member of Idol whose contract was up this year. Rice says he wanted her to renew her contract, and he believed she got a fair offer, which included a substantial raise. With the news occurring only 36 hours prior, Rice said the only major announcements to make at this point about the show were that Katy Perry and Victoria Beckham are confirmed to be guest judges on the audition shows.
"It's been 24 hours [since] getting these dates done," Rice said. "Katy's dates are still being worked out. There's a lot of logistics in that."
Rice said the intention is to have guest judges at each one of the auditions. Other guest judges have committed, but are not yet confirmed. "The current focus for Idol is the audition process taking place," Rice said.
While Fox is busy booking guest judges for the audition process, which kicks off in Denver Aug. 7, Rice and Reilly said they're likely to replace Abdul with a full-time fourth judge. A rotating guest-host slot is a "possibility" but "not a probability," Rice said.
Fox declined to name candidates for Adbul's successor, pointing to the fact that this news is so new, but said they will be looking for a female pop star or performer or pro of some other sort with musical chops.
When asked whether Perry or Beckham might be candidates, Rice said the guest judges being utilized all have busy careers, and likely wouldn't have the time to serve as the judge.
The Q&A session was Rice's first appearance at a TCA gathering, and he emphasized his eagerness to "get to know" the TV press. Rice moved over from the film side at News Corp., where he headed Fox Searchlight, earlier this year. He said he enjoyed his relationship with the film press.
The session was largely dominated by talk of Idol. In other Fox news from the session, Reilly said that there are no plans to air the episodes of King of the Hill or Moment of Truth that are in the can. "It's unlikely," he said.