Too Pitchy? Paula Abdul to Leave American Idol

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Chris Pizzello / Reuters

American Idol judges Simon Cowell, left, Paula Abdul, center, and Randy Jackson wave to the crowd during the show's finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on May 24, 2006

Bad news, American Idol fans: This year, it's Paula Abdul who won't be getting the chance to go to Hollywood.

During the same prime-time Tuesday time slot so familiar to the show's millions of fans, the high-drama American Idol judge updated her personal Twitter page with news that she was leaving the popular show. "With sadness in my heart, I've decided not to return to #IDOL," Abdul posted to her account at around 7:30 p.m. on the West Coast. "I'll miss nurturing all the new talent, but most of all being a part of a show that I helped from day1become [sic] an international phenomenon."

The surprising news is the latest in a series of headlines punctuating Idol's off-season. In July, host Ryan Seacrest signed a three-year extension with Idol producer 19 Entertainment worth $15 million a year — believed to be the most lucrative deal ever for a reality-show host. Meanwhile, Simon Cowell, the show's irritable icon who earns an estimated $30 million a year as a judge and holds the rights to sign management contracts with Idol contestants, is reportedly in negotiations for a contract extension that could net him more than $100 million a year. And just this past Monday, Aug. 3, newcomer Kara DioGuardi — a figure who has divided loyal Idol fans with an approach that some have derided as obnoxious and even arrogant — agreed to return as a judge for a second season. Cowell and Randy Jackson remain under contract through the next season.

Abdul's announcement comes only five days before the show is scheduled to start filming auditions for the next season (set to air in January), and two weeks after Cowell told the celebrity-news show Extra that he hoped his longtime colleague would appear with with him on the new season. Cowell's olive branch was offered in response to threats made publicly by Abdul's manager, David Sonenberg. who said his client would not return to Idol without an appropriate pay raise. "Very sadly, it does not appear that she's going to be back on Idol," Sonenberg initially told the Los Angeles Times on July 17.

Sonenberg's comments unleashed a flurry of support for Abdul on Twitter, as fans rallied around the former pop star, demanding that she return to the hit singing competition. Some went so far as to organize a "Save Paula" tweeting campaign, provoking an emotional response from the empathetic judge. "I'm actually moved 2 tears upon reading the enormous amount of tweets showing me your kindness, love & undying support. God bless all of you!" Abdul wrote last month.

This outpouring of goodwill was, apparently, limited to the twittersphere. Late Tuesday night, Abdul's farewell tweets were met with an official statement from Fox, FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment: "Paula Abdul has been an important part of the American Idol family over the last eight seasons and we are saddened that she has decided not to return to the show. While Paula will not be continuing with us, she's a tremendous talent and we wish her the best."

Over the past seven years, American Idol has been a reliable ratings boon for News Corp., its latest season averaging 26.3 million viewers per episode. But as viewership has sagged from one year to the next, some pundits have questioned the staying power of the franchise. The real question now, for the network and its sponsors, is whether a Cowell-Jackson-DioGuardi judging ensemble can keep the audience happy, or if the minor Twitter turbulence witnessed last month among Idol fans after Sonenberg's initial warnings will now escalate into a tidal wave.