NEW YORK - The clock is winding down to the judges' round of "American Idol" auditions - next month, the gates will be opened for a new batch of hopefuls. They'd do well to come prepared: Paula Abdul might not be around to dole out much-needed hugs and kind words of encouragement.
The kooky, feel-good judge, whose sweetness tempers the tart-tongued Simon Cowell, is reportedly unhappy about her status on the top-rated talent competition - and she wants her frustration known.
Abdul's manager, David Sonenberg, dropped an "Idol" bombshell last Friday when he told The Los Angeles Times' website that the longtime judge may not be returning to the upcoming ninth season.
The reason? According to Sonenberg, she had not yet received a proposal for a new contract.
"I find it under these circumstances particularly unusual; I think unnecessarily hurtful," said Sonenberg, who noted Abdul was "not a happy camper" as a result of stalled contract negotiations.
Abdul seems to be healing her wounds on Twitter. After Sonenberg's public statements, a campaign of support sprung up on the micro-blogging site, where "KeepPaula" became a hot trending tropic. Among those joining the effort were former "Idol" contestants Anoop Desai, Danny Gokey and Syesha Mercado.
Mercado, a finalist on season seven, tweeted: "No Paula No American Idol."
Abdul, who has over 725,000 followers on the site, responded to her fans, gushing, "I'm actually moved 2 tears upon reading the enormous amount of tweets showing me your kindness, love,&undying support."
Meanwhile, host Ryan Seacrest is making bank. The media mogul signed a lucrative deal that keeps him hosting "Idol" through 2012 as well as participating in new projects. The announcement, made last week, specified no dollar figure, although The Hollywood Reporter pegged the deal at $45 million.
The other "Idol" judges are Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and newcomer Kara DioGuardi. Representatives for Fox and the show's producers - 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia - declined to comment on Abdul's situation. Abdul's publicist, Jeff Ballard, directed The Associated Press to Sonenberg, who did not respond to requests for comment.
"She'll be fine. She'll be on the show," Cowell was quoted as telling "Extra" on Monday. "I don't get a lot of say. I've just made it clear that I want Paula on the show."
According to the entertainment news show, Seacrest said as far as he knows, "you'll see everybody back." Cowell agent Alan Berger and Seacrest spokeswoman Meredith O'Sullivan did not immediately respond to interview requests.
"The perturbing thing of this Paula Abdul news, of her not coming back, is the sort of implication that if Paula doesn't come back, does this mean that they're now relying on Kara to fill that third seat?" mused Michael Slezak, who blogs about "Idol" for Entertainment Weekly magazine's website.
"Because I think in the history of show additions, Kara would be in the top 10 least successful additions to popular shows ever. She was dreadful last season and I think the 'Idol'-verse has sort of uniformly felt that she really didn't bring much to the show."
Beyond that, Slezak added, who can tell what is truth and what is fiction with Abdul? "These people, and this show, want to be in the headlines, and this is a good way to do it," he said. "So you don't know: Is this another case of crying wolf ... or do they really mean it this time? Are they really through with her?"
Contract disputes are among the juiciest bits of television history. Suzanne Somers' acting career faded in the 1980s after she was written out of the ABC sitcom "Three's Company." Her crime: Demanding more money. The stars of "The Dukes Of Hazzard," Tom Wopat and John Schneider, walked off the show in 1982 and were replaced after a nationwide talent search. Their substitutes weren't accepted by the public, and the original "Dukes" were back on set within the year.
In 2004, Jorja Fox and George Eads were fired from the CBS hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" during tense contract negotiations. They were later hired back.
And two years ago, "Grey's Anatomy" actress Katherine Heigl talked publicly about a protracted dispute with ABC. She has said she wanted "the same respect they're showing the other actors."
As for Abdul, could the show survive without its sweetest critic?
"I don't think 'American Idol' will die without her," said Rickey Yaneza, who blogs about "Idol" at Rickey.org. "Judging from last year, I mean, it's ... actually kind of nice to have things change. It makes it fresher."
"It's kind of like a bold move," Yaneza said, referring to Sonenberg's media announcement, "but I think what'll happen is I think eventually whatever they'll offer her, she'll take."
If "Idol" lost Abdul, the show would lose its second most valuable judge, Slezak said, raising another question: Why not drop Jackson and Dioguardi as well?
"I have a feeling in my gut that if they shook that panel up and just kept Simon and brought in two people who maybe could be equal to Simon - or as good or close to as good - I think it could only benefit the show," he said.
"This thought that Simon can be the only sharp insightful judge at that table, I think people would be surprised how much they might enjoy having three really sharp people on that panel."