Paula Abdul is in talks with Nigel Lythgoe about becoming a part of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” but the exec producer believes Abdul’s apparent departure from “American Idol” might be reversed.

However, Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice took a harder line on Abdul’s “Idol” future and indicated that the network may not settle on a permanent fourth judge for “Idol” until its season premiere in January.

“Our understanding is we’ve concluded the negotiations and Paula has announced she will not be coming back,” Rice said Thursday at the Television Critics Assn. gathering in Pasadena.

Lythgoe said that he spoke with Abdul, whose “Idol” contract talks with Fox broke down Tuesday, on Wednesday morning and that discussions will continue this weekend (with Rice’s blessing). He said that “there’s no question” he is interested in bringing Abdul to “Dance.”

“I don’t know anybody that’s had her experience of being a dancer, of being a choreographer and of being a judge,” Lythgoe said at TCA.

However, Lythgoe clarified that his talks with Abdul weren’t specifically about making her a permanent judge on “Dance” but rather multiple possibilities that would include being part of the show’s third-judge rotation. He said he is “not a huge fan” of the four permanent judges setup that “Idol” embraced last season when it added Kara DioGuardi (whose option was picked up earlier this week).

Though he touted Abdul’s credentials, Lythgoe stopped short of saying she was indispensable to “Idol,” long the most popular show on American television.

“Idol” is “far bigger than any individual,” Lythgoe said, crediting the series’ format and young talent. “It’s been a success all over the world. … Simon Cowell is not a judge all over the world, (but) it’s been successful.”

That thinking clearly dovetails with Fox’s.

“When shows are this successful, it’s very easy to take for granted the level of producing, because things seem so seamless,” Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly said. “I’m not saying it’s easy. You’re messing with the chemistry, with what works — but that’s part of what top producers (solve).”

Thus, while Fox reportedly offered Abdul a 30% raise in her new contract, the network isn’t inclined to up the ante further.

“We had been talking to her about it for most of the season, certainly before I arrived at the company four months ago,” Rice said. “In the past few weeks, the negotiations sort of came to a conclusion. We made an offer we feel was very fair to Paula.”

While some have speculated that the beginning of “Idol” auditions (taped for future use) before the show’s judges Friday represented a deadline for a 180 on Abdul’s departure, Rice and Fox alternative programming topper Mike Darnell indicated that there will be a search process that could carry through the January season premiere. Abdul’s legendary positivity is not a job requirement.

“I think we’re going to be looking for someone with her own persona, who adds something to the show,” Darnell said. “If you noticed over the past couple of years, Paula wasn’t praising as much. She was her own persona.”

Fox announced that Katy Perry and Victoria Beckham would be among the season’s guest judges, but that it was improbable that “Idol” would have a permanent fourth judge.

“There is no contingency, no expectation, no thought right now that any of these (guest) judges will be a long-term judge for us,” Rice said. “All the people we are talking to have very successful careers; I don’t think they would be available to judge full time. We have between now and January to introduce a different energy to the panel.”

Rice said he had no expectation that Abdul would seek to reopen talks with Fox on “Idol.” Even so, Lythgoe isn’t calling Abdul’s “Idol” exit a done deal.

“Until ‘Idol’ goes on the air, there’s always an opportunity for negotiation,” he said, later adding that he thinks the talks should have remained private but that “I don’t think it’s a publicity stunt.”