Jennifer Lopez may soon be joining Fox show

Ellen DeGeneres won’t be returning to “American Idol” next season.

But Jennifer Lopez may soon be joining the “Idol” judges’ table.

As first reported this afternoon by Variety, DeGeneres’ exit comes as Fox and producers FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment plot a massive “Idol” overhaul.

DeGeneres said she told Fox and the “Idol” producers months ago that she wasn’t comfortable with returning for a second go-round on the show.

“I told them I wouldn’t leave them in a bind and that I would hold off on doing anything until they were able to figure out where they wanted to take the panel next,” DeGeneres said. “It was a difficult decision to make, but my work schedule became more than I bargained for.”

As for Lopez, the singer — whose career has been on the skids for quite some time — emerged as a true contender for the gig in recent weeks. While other names have been bandied about — from Justin Timberlake and Jessica Simpson to Elton John and Sean “P.Diddy” Combs — Lopez might make more sense. The singer is known for being brash — witness her “Jenny from the Block” persona — and has the obvious industry background.

Fox declined comment, however, on the Lopez talk.

Insiders told Variety late Thursday that no deal is actually in place just yet — and certain deal points might still stall her hire on the show. But Fox execs would ideally like to be able to announce Fox’s new “Idol” judge this Monday, the day of Fox’s TV Critics Assn. presentation.

Lopez’s name came up in 2009 as a potential replacement for departing judge Paula Abdul, although she dismissed the idea at the time.

DeGeneres’ departure comes as she opts to devote her attention to her popular daytime “Ellen DeGeneres Show” — which is now on track to fill the syndicated talk show void left by the departure next year of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

What’s more, her exit and the well-publicized departure of Simon Cowell now sets the stage for an “Idol” makeover.

Several reports have speculated in recent weeks that Fox might opt to clear the judging panel (except perhaps for Randy Jackson, who has another year left on his deal). Rumors are spreading that Kara DioGuardi, who joined the show two years ago, might also not return.

DeGeneres had another year left on her rich pact with “Idol,” but it’s believed that the host wasn’t quite comfortable with some of the critiques she had to give to contestants — something she now confirms.

“I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings. I loved the experience working on ‘Idol’ and I am very grateful for the year I had. I am a huge fan of the show and will continue to be.”

The reviews of DeGeneres’ performance on “Idol” also weren’t kind, as the popular comedian struggled to find her proper voice on the show.

Then there were the reports of tension on the “Idol” set, as rumors of clashes between DeGeneres and prickly Cowell hit the Internet.

“We love Ellen and understand and support her decision to bow out of ‘Idol,'”

Fox Networks Group entertainment chairman Peter Rice. “We were fortunate to receive the humor, energy and love for talent that she brought to the show.”

It didn’t help that the show itself suffered from what was generally considered a lackluster season. “Idol” was down about 9% last year — still making it a monster hit, but eroding enough that rivals began to smell blood.

Much of the cause of “Idol’s” decline has been attributed to the show’s lack of contestant star power. The exit of eccentric judge Paula Abdul may have also played a role, while the show also appeared to be hit by sloppy production values, as it frequently ran overtime.

To address some of those issues, Fox already announced plans to alter “Idol’s” air pattern next season, when performance shows will run for 90 minutes Tuesday nights, with an abbreviated 30 minute results show Wednesdays.

But the big changes are to come. Former “Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe remains in talks to rejoin the show’s exec producer stable, alongside Simon Fuller, Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz.

And then there’s the issue of landing a big name to fill the Cowell void.

Despite the Lopez talk on Thursday, Fox, 19 and FremantleMedia are mum on who might ultimately land on the show.

DeGeneres, meanwhile, will have her hands full as Warner Bros. positions her daytime yakker as the natural home for “Oprah’s” displaced audience.

Earlier this month, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution announced that it had cleared “Ellen” in 99% of the country for 2011. But what’s more, the distributor said it had persuaded stations in 88 out of the top 100 markets to either keep or move “Ellen” into early fringe time periods (where “Oprah” currently dominates)

“Ellen” is also set on NBC-owned outlets including WNBC New York and KNBC Los Angeles for several years to come.

Fox alternative prexy Mike Darnell called working with DeGeneres “a joy.”

“She brought an incredible spirit to ‘Idol’ and was a great new addition to the team,” Darnell said. “While we’re saddened by her decision, we are very appreciative that she gave us ample notice so that we could work through it together.”

DeGeneres was tapped for the “Idol” gig last September; as part of the that deal, DeGeneres also sealed a deal with Warner Bros. that extended her daytime “Ellen DeGeneres Show” yakker through 2014.

At the time, DeGeneres said she was a huge fan of the show and said she hoped to be the voice of the consumer on the “Idol” panel.

“I love music,” she said at the time. “Hopefully, I’m the people’s point of view… I’m looking at it as someone who’s going to buy that music.”

DeGeneres will still have her hands in the music biz, having signed YouTube star Greyson Chance to her new label in May.

Deadline first broke news of Lopez’s hire.

(Updated at 7:30 p.m. to reflect the Jennifer Lopez news.)

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