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03.15.10

Will Paula Choose Simon?

Sources tell Kim Masters that Abdul would be foolish to pass on a sure thing, ABC's Star Search reboot, for a chance at Simon Cowell's X Factor. But Abdul is anything but predictable.

So Simon and Paula won't be getting back together, after all?

(That whooping you hear in the background comes from Fox executives, who won't mind at all if the high-maintenance Paula Abdul does not—as threatened—join Simon Cowell's next venture, The X Factor, set to debut on Fox in 2011.)

On Monday, word leaked out that Abdul was "finalizing" a deal to host and judge a reboot of the talent competition Star Search, on ABC. Whether this deal will come together is still unclear. Last week, sources said the former American Idol judge had stunned ABC executives by rejecting what they had deemed a staggering offer.

ABC declined to comment on the story.

Says Cowell: “As far as I am concerned, Fox always valued her as a star and my relationship with Paula is as strong as ever.”

Of course, Abdul has been largely MIA since declining an offer from Fox last spring to return for Season 9 on American Idol. Until then, Abdul had offered the soft-hearted incoherent commentary, balancing Cowell's acerbic, reality-based remarks.

Some Internet reports have speculated that Cowell wants Abdul for his new show, X Factor. Cowell has been coy on the subject.

A Fox insider said Abdul would be foolish in the extreme if she passes on the ABC show, which, unlike Cowell's new program, would be a sure thing for her.

Fox has had enough of Abdul—a talent who has proved erratic. One executive remembers a long and seemingly pleasant lunch with her that took a sudden and inexplicable turn when the meal came to an end and Abdul burst out, "Why do you hate me?" This executive says Abdul is well-meaning but "never acts in a reasonable way."

In an email, Cowell disputed the view that Fox executives don't want Abdul to return. "I have no idea where this speculation comes from," he said. "As far as I am concerned, Fox always valued her as a star and my relationship with Paula is as strong as ever."

What seems clear is that if Cowell genuinely wants Abdul on his show, nothing—including resistance from Fox executives—could stop him. "If he wanted her, he could get her," says a Fox veteran. "She would probably ask for the sun, the moon, and stars."

According to the Fox insider, Cowell and Abdul genuinely loathed each other in the early days of Idol but after a couple of seasons, Cowell became her "protector" and her "caretaker." He got her to understand that their banter was valuable—that their seemingly testy exchanges were working for them. "Paula basically made Simon the boss," this insider says. "And Simon loves that."

Abdul's publicist responded to a query with an email: "Paula would love to have a conversation with you when the time is right."

Since Idol took America by storm, the Fox insider says, several key executives who used to deal with her—including producer Nigel Lythgoe and former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin—have moved on. The current group has had "layers of employees telling [them] how obnoxious she's been." And those executives feel that Fox and the show's producers made her an extremely generous offer to stay with Idol, only to be rebuffed publicly. (Abdul's manager at the time called them "rude and disrespectful.")

Several observers agree that if Abdul does sign on for Star Search on ABC, there's no chance that she can also appear on X Factor on Fox. One high-level executive in the mix says Cowell will have to decide whether he really wants Abdul, and "he's a mercurial guy."

If Abdul isn't on Cowell's show, however, this observer says Cowell won't be perceived as rejecting her. "He'll keep his hands clean," this executive says.

The original syndicated Star Search, with Ed McMahon as host, got started back in 1983 and ran until 1995. A reboot ran in 2003 and 2004 on CBS, hosted by Arsenio Hall.

The idea of yet another reboot was met with a cool to lukewarm response by a couple of television executives. "There's zero fresh about the concept," says one of ABC's competitors. "And that only makes you wonder what Paula's going to bring to the table."

"It feels a little—one can say—creatively bankrupt, but there are plenty of ideas that appear creatively bankrupt," says another. This observer thinks the reboot is "worth a shot" as a summer show.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.