‘Idol’ hooked Ellen in two weeks

Fox, FremantleMedia, 19 Ent. act fast on deal

It took a little more than two weeks to make Ellen DeGeneres an “American Idol” judge.

The comedian and daytime talkshow host was first approached less than a month ago about joining the show. But despite DeGeneres’ stature, the lengthy five-year pact, the simultaneous “Ellen DeGeneres Show” contract renewal at Warner Bros. and the logistics of DeGeneres juggling both jobs, the deal came fast and furious.

“Both sides were motivated,” said Fox alternative chief Mike Darnell. “It was a deal both sides wanted to make.”

Darnell said the idea first came about after DeGeneres appeared this summer as a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.” DeGeneres was already very familiar to the “American Idol” team, as she co-hosted the show’s 2007 “Idol Gives Back” charity event, and has also been a champion of the competish on her daytime gabber.

“All of a sudden it hit us, ‘I wonder if she’s interested,’ ” Darnell said. “Not only was she interested, but she was incredibly enthusiastic. She’s not only a great name, but she’s terrifically talented and loves music. And in addition we get someone who already adores the show, instead of having to talk them into doing it.”

Darnell also sees a grand marketing opportunity for “Idol” in bringing on DeGeneres. “Idol” talent already regularly appear on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” but there will now be an even more solid pipeline between the two.

“It feeds one another, absolutely,” he said. “It’s a win for us, as she’ll be talking about it more on her show. And certainly people will come to ‘Idol’ to see how she does. There’s a huge curiosity factor.”

Darnell said “Idol” might have reverted back to three judges had the show not signed on DeGeneres, but FremantleMedia North America topper Cecile Frot-Coutaz said the show pretty firmly wanted to maintain the four-judge setup it first introduced last year.

“We like the dynamic with four judges,” she said. “It gives us better balance … Ellen has been a part of the family in some ways. Everyone got excited about the idea. Very often there are the pros and cons, but with Ellen there was no debate.”

Of course, there was ongoing speculation that Abdul would eventually make amends with Fox and producers 19 Ent. and FremantleMedia. And according to Frot-Coutaz, there actually was a short window at the beginning of August where a reconciliation could have still happened, even after Abdul announced (via Twitter) her decision to quit.

“In the end, if she had come back and fairly quickly, would the door have been open? Perhaps,” she said. “But at a certain point you have to get on with your life. She walked away. We have to plan for what’s best for the TV show. It’s hard when someone walks away to come back.”

Frot-Coutaz compared Abdul’s exit to a romantic breakup — when a clean break is made, that’s it.

“The reality is, Paula was great for ‘American Idol,’ ” Frot-Coutaz said. “I was sad the deal couldn’t be made. But she decided to walk away from it.”

Added Darnell: “Look, we were finished with that contractual negotiation. And we took it seriously. We had to go back looking. We just moved on.”

Abdul, meanwhile, made her first comment Thursday — once again, via Twitter — about the DeGeneres announcement: “I think Ellen will b a gr8 judge on Idol. She is wildly funny, talented and I wish her the best of luck!”

Frot-Coutaz said the producers hadn’t approached anyone else about the fourth judge chair. That includes the celebrity guest judges who have taken part in the first round of “Idol” auditions across the country.

“Once we knew for a fact that Paula wasn’t coming back, we had to figure out what to do with the audition shows,” she said. “So we put together a lineup of guest judges. It was all very last minute. In that process, you think about longer term and whether to replace Paula … but a lot of the guest judges were people who wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Darnell said the producers are still mulling how to start incorporating DeGeneres into the show’s early rounds. The nationwide auditions have been completed; next are the Hollywood rounds — and Darnell said they’re still talking about when she’ll start getting involved.

“She will absolutely at a minimum be there for the boy-girl rounds,” Darnell said.

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