LOS ANGELES — For a moment, it felt like a Battle of the Network TV Executives.
But it took only a second of fumbling on stage with a cellphone for Fox entertainment head Kevin Reilly to squelch a bunch of American Idol rumors Monday, including executive producer Nigel Lythgoe's hope that judge Jennifer Lopez might remain on the show.
Reilly faced journalists here at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour with pop star Mariah Carey on the telephone line, assuring writers by speakerphone that she would be at the blockbuster show's judging table as former judges Lopez and Steven Tyler were leaving.
"I am so excited to be joining Idol," Carey said, her voice crackling over the connection. "I wish I could have been there myself to tell you ... (but) I think you know this all kind of just happened. I can't wait to get started in a couple months."
Reilly said Carey's deal was closed "only hours" before the Monday morning announcement, so quickly that she couldn't join the Fox portion of the annual press tour. Forget about getting an answer on whether rumors of her $17 million salary were accurate.
He also closed the door on speculation raised just an hour earlier when Lythgoe, facing critics during a press conference for his other Fox reality show So You Think You Can Dance, told journalists he wasn't sure Lopez's talk of leaving Idol was "a negotiating tactic."
"That's a personal thing, just a human thing," Reilly explained of Lythgoe's hedging. "I think I can say it's 100 percent that Jennifer won't be back to the show."
Critics immediately thought that Fox and Idol may have been refusing to publicly confirm Lopez's departure until they closed a deal with another big star (a notion Reilly confirmed later).
The news also seems to place Lythgoe in a precarious position, unaware of the show's move to hire such a big star while he's angling to stay on as executive producer. Lythgoe told critics he is still negotiating his new contract, and Reilly said he expects him to return.
Lythgoe said he would like to see the judges change every year, perhaps because the show saw a ratings boost in the first year with Tyler and Lopez.
"It's horrible to be in this position where you guys are like 'Who's it going to be?' " Lythgoe said. "I tried to deflate everything by saying (we'd hire) the Three Stooges, but ... you can't negotiate with someone in a public marketplace. And once you've negotiated with the person, you then have to negotiate around that person. It's a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on top of the box."
Reilly wouldn't commit to one-year judge deals, but acknowledged "change is going to be a part of the show going forward. The audience wants to see a discovery of something new from the bench, so we're going to keep playing with that going forward."
Left unanswered: Whether third judge Randy Jackson would come back, too. And if he does return, whether he would come back as a judge or mentor.
Reilly would say only that Jackson, as Carey's co-manager, "was very instrumental in doing this deal" to bring her to American Idol.
Over the years, Fox executives have grown weary of the way speculation about Idol dwarfs their other news during the press tour. As with most things Idol, the show offers a double-edged sword, dominating the press coverage because it remains the most popular non-sports series on television but drowning out the network's other messaging.
For example, Fox also announced Monday it would debut the first episodes of its new comedies The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate online Aug. 27. The shows will be available for two weeks across online platforms such as Hulu and Facebook before the show's Sept. 25 debut on Fox.
After his press conference, Reilly tried talking up Glee, which will offer a "spinoff inside the show" feel this fall, dividing its time between characters in New York who have graduated from high school and other characters remaining in Ohio.
And there's the coming face-off in the fall between Simon Cowell's singing competition The X Factor and NBC's The Voice.
"The fall is going to make this the biggest game in town," Reilly said. "If we can come anywhere near what the British show did with One Direction (the boy band Cowell discovered on Britain's X Factor), it's lights out for the other guys."