''The show must go on, as they say. And it will in a big way.'' So says American Idol exec producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz about the splashy announcement on Sept. 9 that Ellen DeGeneres will fill Paula Abdul's vacant judge's chair come February. The deal was unusual by Hollywood standards not because of DeGeneres' Idol salary (which one agent estimates in the $5-7 million range), but due to how quickly the blockbuster pact came together. It took a little more than two weeks for TV's No. 1 show to lock up the Emmy-winning talk-show host. ''When something gets in her head, she wants to do it,'' says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Adds Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment, ''I'm still a little bit in shock myself. We thought it could take months, if we could find anybody.... [But] sometimes serendipity happens.''
DeGeneres who will move up her Ellen tapings by two hours to accommodate the Idol schedule is a known Idol worshipper who's cohosted Idol Gives Back and served as a guest judge on fellow Fox competition So You Think You Can Dance in July. While she has no music-industry experience, Fox execs and Idol producers say that's her strength. ''She'll be speaking from an Everyman point of view,'' says Darnell, ''like she does when she's [watching] in her house saying 'I love Kris,' 'I love Adam.' It's a great element to add to the judges' panel.''
DeGeneres' moonlighting could also boost Ellen's viewership, especially now that the host plans to book every Idol contestant the day after he or she is booted. But let's get down to the biggest issue: How will she mesh with the notoriously tough Simon Cowell? ''I think she is strong enough to keep Simon in his place,'' says former Idol exec producer and current SYTYCD exec producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe. ''I don't think many people could just move in and give him a good smack when he is acting up. Ellen can.''
Additional reporting by Lynette Rice and Carrie Bell