Network execs tight-lipped at TCA panel

Peter Rice will entertain your “American Idol” questions. He just won’t answer them.

The Fox Networks Group entertainment chairman will patiently sit and listen as you come up with new, clever ways to ask just what is going on with TV’s No.1 series. Just don’t expect a real response.

Speaking to reporters at the Fox portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour Monday, Rice conceded that, in a perfect world, he’d have a new “Idol” panel to announce. But unlike what transpired at the press tour in January, when Rice and company struck a deal with Simon Cowell in the 11th hour to launch “The X-Factor,” at this year’s Fox press tour, no explosive announcement was in the offing.

“I wish we could walk out a panel of judges,” Rice told reporters. “Sorry, that’s not going to happen. If we had signed deals we would have done it.”

Reports have suggested that at least one of Fox’s “Idol” picks, Jennifer Lopez, has begun playing hard ball — asking for additional sweeteners to her deal. There’s also a sense that Lopez, and perhaps others, are looking to gauge public reaction before committing to the job.

Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler still appears to be among the other front-runners along with Elton John — although Rice never uttered the names of Lopez, Tyler, John or any other contenders.

“Much of the information is accurate, some of it is wildly inaccurate,” Rice said of recent press reports.

Then there’s the case of former “Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who’s near a deal to take back his old job on the show next to fellow EPs Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz and Simon Fuller. But with even Lythgoe’s pact still not sealed, Rice could only throw out this vague statement: “No one has signed a deal yet on either side of the camera to join ‘Idol’ who wasn’t on it last year.”

What does that mean for incumbent judge Kara DioGuardi, rumored to be on the outs?

No comment.

Is Fox planning to keep its four-judge panel, or downsize back to three judges?

No comment.

Fox has had seven months to find Cowell’s replacement, why has it taken so long?

No comment.

When does the panel have to be in place?

“We start auditions with the judges in mid-September,” Rice said. “The plan is to have the judges’ panel in place and signed by then.”

An answer!

Rice also told reporters that despite the intense scrutiny that Fox’s judge selections will receive, they’ve done no testing on their picks.

Providing a little more background on the departure of judge Ellen DeGeneres, who had a year left on her pact, Rice said he discussed her future with the show in a meeting in June, after the “Idol” finale. “We talked about the season, her feelings and the idea that she wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “She felt it was not a good fit… she ultimately didn’t enjoy the judging aspect.”

Rice said he tried to persuade her to stay but instead they agreed that Fox, along with producers 19 and FremantleMedia, would look for a new judge. The network and DeGeneres came to terms on her exit last week after Fox decided that it was confident that it could assemble a panel without her.

Despite the media scrutiny, Rice — voicing a bit of British-style sarcasm — told reporters that the judge brouhaha has been “unbelievably fun” and that the search takes up different amounts of his attention on a daily basis. The chaos at the very least serves as a reminder “about how intensely people care about this show,” Rice said.

Despite the general consensus that “Idol” suffered a lackluster season (as evidenced by some ratings erosion), Rice and Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly didn’t appear concerned about the show’s overall setup.

“People have a connection with the show,” Rice said. “It’s ‘Idol’s’ 10th season. Simon’s departure is a natural evolution. We’d love to be celebrating its 20th anniversary in ten years.”

On other matters, Fox announced that the Steven Spielberg drama “Terra Nova,” originally set for midseason, now won’t air until fall 2011. In a scheduling strategy identical to how it rolled out “Glee,” Fox will preview the first episode of “Terra Nova” in May 2011 — likely behind the penultimate episode of “American Idol.”

Fox said the sheer amount of special effects in “Terra Nova” — which centers on a futuristic family that travels back in time 85 million years — required more time for production. “It really became apparent that to do this show right, we were going to need some time,” Reilly said.

Reilly also said that, despite speculation to the contrary, Fox is committed to airing “The Good Guys” in the fall — where it will remain a part of the Friday night lineup. Show has struggled on Mondays this summer.

Now that Conan O’Brien isn’t heading to Fox, Reilly said the network has no immediate latenight plans. That includes Saturday, Fox’s only current latenight slot, which will be filled with repeats in the fall.

Meanwhile, Reilly — a close, personal friend of deposed ABC Entertainment chair Steve McPherson (the two were fraternity brothers at Cornell) — called the controversy surrounding McPherson’s exit at the Alphabet “disturbing.”

“All I can speak to is the depth of his character,” Reilly said. “He’s a very loyal and good friend. As a professional, he’s not been afraid to have the courage of his convictions… My focus is being a friend to him and to his family.”

Should McPherson opt to become a producer, Reilly said “the door will always be open to him at Fox.”

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