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Another 'American Idol' Season, Another Story About a Departing Judge [Updated]

[UPDATE: As of last night -- as in August 4th -- Paula Abdul says she's not coming back, and she appears to mean it. That said, I'm still not sure this is entirely over. Time to cue up the emotional outpouring of support, and her return to the show at the very last minute.]

Just like the swallows coming home to Capistrano, preparation for another season of "American Idol" is upon us, and with it, the inevitable rumor-mongering of which judge is going to get drop-kicked: this time around Paula Abdul. At this point, it seems fairly obvious that somewhere deep inside the heart of the "AI" franchise this is all exquisitely planned, although how this works is exceedingly opaque. The Los Angeles Times has the obligatory story that focuses on the whining of Abdul's manager about the paltry contract for the coming season offered to Abdul and how, since declining that contract, her management has not heard a peep out of FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, which produce the show. (Meanwhile, host Ryan Seacrest has scored a $45 million deal for the next three seasons.)

Naturally, the "news" about Abdul, apparently took over the Twittersphere for some time yesterday, with celeb-u-tweets coming from former "AI" contenders in her support (and Abdul posting gushy responses to her fans). While this may all be the work of Abdul's new manager, you do wonder if back at Fremantle and 19, they wanted to create some drama leading into the season -- and Abdul, who has cultivated a reputation for lovable loopiness, is clearly the show's most sympathetic character. As recently as May, Simon Cowell, the true straw that stirs "AI"'s drink, said, in a story about whether Kara DioGuardi would return: ""The only say I have is about Ryan, Randy and Paula. I've always made it clear that I wouldn't like to do the show without them. So that's all I'm really concerned about."

That, of course, followed speculation in April that after his current contract is over in 2010, Cowell will leave the show. In fact, several weeks ago, while chopping up onion and watching one of those syndicated entertainment shows, I heard Cowell said something or other that seemed to put DioGuardi on the bubble. And the beat goes on.

But the fact of the matter is that, even though it's impossible to make someone come to terms over a contract, the show can't really afford to lose anyone -- except newcomer DioGuardi -- which is why, after years of speculation about whether judges were coming or going, the net is one added judge, with no departures. And, while "AI"'s ratings are far from in the toilet, they aren't what they were. The season debut, for instance, was down by 10 percent compared to 2008, and the ratings for the finale were its lowest ever. The show's dilemma, then, is to balance new drama (DioGuardi), with the comfort factor of its familiar faces (Seacrest, Abdul, Jackson, Cowell), while threatening to have one or all of them pulled off the show until the very last moment before the new season starts.