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*With “American Idol” ratings plunging by the week, producers and Fox executive tried to bring back Jennifer Lopez mid-season to replace Mariah Carey, but dropped the effort when Carey’s camp threatened legal action, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.

These sources claim “Idol’s” producers are still negotiating with Lopez, who served as a popular judge during the past two seasons, to appear on the show’s finale in May. And insiders say a search has already has begun to replace Carey, most likely Nicki Minaj and possibly the entire judge’s panel for next season, reports THR.

“This is just another ridiculous ‘Idol’ judge rumor, likely started by talks of Jennifer performing on the finale,” a Fox spokeswoman tells THR in a statement. Producer Fremantle NorthAmerica declines to comment. A rep for Carey denies these allegations. ‘Idol’ producer Nigel Lythgoe tells THR: “I have not been included in any conversation regarding replacing Mariah with Jen this season.”

“American Idol” kicked off its 12th season on solid enough footing. Earning a 6.0 rating with adults 18-49 and 17.9 million total viewers in its January return, the 17 percent dip was less precipitous than some of the bigger drops in recent years. But the months since have been less kind. The Wednesday performance show is currently averaging a 4.3 rating with adults 18-49, its worst performance since its inaugural season in 2001. And it is dropping nearly every week.
Even worse for Idol, the robust reboot of NBC’s “The Voice” with Shakira and Usher recently has seen ratings climb to a 5.2 rating in the demo during the same week “Idol” bottomed out with a series low 2.8 rating. Adding insult to injury, “Idol” made headlines last week when preliminary numbers showed its total viewers for a results show was beaten by a repeat of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”

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Sources told THR that Fox reality chief Mike Darnell and Fremantle’s Cecile Frot-Coutaz have been especially concerned about the “Idol” ratings trajectory, and they hoped that a surprise shake-up on the judges’ panel would help. Carey, a multiplatinum and Grammy-winning singer, is perhaps “Idol’s” most pedigreed judge ever. But despite her eight-figure salary, she has seemed passive and disengaged in her comments on the show, failing to generate the kind of fan following that Lopez had when she judged.

By contrast, Minaj has turned into “Idol’s” sharp-tongued firebrand, but internal Fox research is said to show that Minaj is not a hit with some of the show’s audience. “The core viewer is a midwestern, Southern, older woman who is threatened by Nicki’s aggressiveness,” says one knowledgeable source.

Producers are said to have pushed for the pairing of Carey and Minaj, thinking it would provide for a panel of diverse opinions and make for good TV if they were in conflict. But “Idol” insiders fear the dynamic has turned off some loyal fans.

Since producers backed off their plan to shake up the show mid-season, attention is said to have already turned to next season. A source who has been approached as a possible judge replacement tells THR that “Idol” producers are looking for “not necessarily a star” to join the show. That might include a music professional with strong credentials.