By James Hibberd
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Fox is near a deal to order more seasons of "American Idol" -- with or without its most popular judge, Simon Cowell.
The network's current contract with "Idol" producers 19 Entertainment and FremantleMedia extends through the end of the 2011. But the network is working on a new deal that includes three more seasons of "Idol," though that number could change.
An announcement is expected to demonstrate Fox's commitment to its top-rated series, even as "Idol" faces its biggest challenge yet.
The "Idol" franchise has been rocked by rumors that Cowell will depart the show after the upcoming season as he prepares to bring his hit UK music competition series "X-Factor" to the United States.
Cowell's brother Tony announced Tuesday on his weekly podcast that Simon will leave "Idol" at the end of 2010. The move could have a double impact on "Idol" -- the loss of a key personality to the series, and the addition of another music competition show on Fox that may lead to fewer "Idol" viewers.
But before anything is finalized at the network, the "Idol" judge still needs to sign his new contract with "Factor" owner Sony. Once that's out of the way, Sony will allow Cowell to make a deal with Fox to bring "Factor" stateside.
Fox would prefer to bundle a "Factor" agreement with at least another season of Cowell judging "Idol." But by quitting "Idol," Cowell could make his participation on "Factor" a bigger event. One potential compromise is that Cowell could take a smaller role on "Idol" in 2011 -- judging the Hollywood rounds, for example, but not the auditions.
Fox was originally planning to debut "Factor" next fall. But delays in the Sony deal have pushed the show to an expected 2011 premiere date.
The headline-making leak on his brother's podcast was the latest in a series of headlines speculating about Cowell's plans. Recently, Cowell and business partner Philip Green made worldwide news by telling GQ magazine of their plan to have "X-Factor" exist as a live Las Vegas extravaganza that would stream as a global pay-per-view event over the Internet.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)