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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "American Idol" appears on course for a wholesale make-over after the abrupt departure of Ellen DeGeneres left the aging singing contest with two holes to fill as it seeks to retain its crown as the most-watched show on U.S. television.
DeGeneres quit on Thursday after just a year of her five-year contract on the TV show, following the exit in May of abrasive British judge Simon Cowell to run his own show.
With no replacements announced, Fox executives meet TV journalists on Monday after a week of fevered rumors, and some denials, that singers Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Chris Isaak and Steven Tyler may be among the contenders for the job of new "American Idol" judge.
Reports that Briton Nigel Lythgoe, one of the original executive producers, is returning, have sparked talk of a "nuclear option" for the show's 10th season, starting in January 2011.
That could entail throwing out remaining judges Randy Jackson and pop songwriter Kara DioGuardi, as well as major changes to the format, TV watchers say.
"I thought (with Simon's exit) that 'Idol' was in a unique position to really make some dramatic fixes to the show, and it looks now that maybe that's what they are going to do," said Brian Mansfield, who runs USA Today's Idol Chatter blog.
Fox has declined to confirm or deny any of the reports. "There has been a lot of speculation and we are not commenting on anything," a network spokesperson said.
Fox presents it 2010-11 new season line-up to TV critics on Monday but the network has until September to put a new panel in place in time for filmed auditions for next year's show.
After four years of declining audiences, lukewarm record sales for the 2010 "American Idol" Lee DeWyze, and a two-week cut in the Top 10 "Idols" summer tour, the money-spinning jewel in Fox's crown could use some polishing, TV watchers say.
"Idol" producers 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia have also taken note. They have already said that the minimum age for contestants will be lowered to 15, in what was seen as a bid to find the next Justin Bieber, who signed his first record contract at the age of 14.
Results shows next year will be cut in half to 30 minutes, and contestants can audition over MySpace.
Fans on the official AmericanIdol.com website were given an unprecedented and detailed questionnaire in May, asking for feedback on their favorite judges, guest judges, weekly musical themes, and whether they would like more informal moments with the contestants backstage.
"You can bet the producers are poring over that," said Todd Gold, managing editor of Fancast.com.
Gold said edgier contestants rather than the family-friendly singers seen in past seasons could give the contest a lift.
"This is a time in TV when playing it safe doesn't seem like it will work. The producers understand that," he said.
Lurking in the background is Cowell's own talent show "The X-Factor" due in the fall of 2011, also on Fox. The British version of the show has a more cut-throat format and Cowell is also out recruiting for judges.
"'X-Factor' is going to get all sorts of attention and so making really wholesale changes to 'Idol' is one way that you can pre-empt the buzz that 'X Factor' is going to get," said Mansfield.
As for the newcomers to the "Idol" panel, Mansfield noted the surprise factor surrounding the appointment of DioGuardi in 2008 and the hiring, and sudden exit, of DeGeneres.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see people (as judges) whose names we haven't even been discussing. 'Idol' producers have been really, really good at keeping secrets," Mansfield said.
"American Idol" is produced by 19 Entertainment, a unit of CKX, Inc, and FremantleMedia. Fox television and MySpace are units of News Corp.
Editing by Dean Goodman