Paula Abdul quit "American Idol" a mere three days before Simon Cowell and the rest of the judges' panel were set to begin overseeing the audition process for season nine, leaving the show rushing to fill her chair with a series of guest judges. The prospect of an entire season populated by a rotating fourth judge seemed a definite possibility, as did the eventual return of Abdul. But after execs came up with a plan to settle Ellen DeGeneres in Abdul's vacated seat permanently, their idea became a reality in little more than two weeks.

Reports in Variety and the Los Angeles Times revealed fresh details about how the comedian and talk-show host joined the most popular show in the country.

"All of a sudden it hit us, 'I wonder if she's interested,' " Fox reality-TV chief Mike Darnell told Variety, explaining that DeGeneres' guest appearance on "So You Think You Can Dance" this summer and her co-hosting stint for 2007's "Idol Gives Back" inspired them to think of her. "Not only was she interested, but she was incredibly enthusiastic."

The five-year deal came together so quickly that many details, including when she will debut on the show, are still being hammered out. "She will absolutely at a minimum be there for the boy-girl rounds," Darnell said.

Darnell indicated that "Idol" might have shifted back to a three-judge panel — as was the case before last year's signing of Kara DioGuardi — had the show not signed DeGeneres. But Cecile Frot-Coutaz, the head of "Idol" producer FremantleMedia North America, maintained that the singing competition was committed to sticking with a fourth judge to complement Cowell, DioGuardi and Randy Jackson.

Though Jackson told MTV News that he's happy to welcome aboard DeGeneres, he said he also regrets that Abdul is no longer with the show.

"We were doing the auditions, and I was looking across the table and it was like, 'Where's Paula? What's going on?' " he told People. "But you know, things happen, life is full of change sometimes. You know, I'm still sad about that."

What certainly has "Idol" execs smiling is the ability to market its contestants on DeGeneres' popular syndicated show. "It feeds one another, absolutely," Darnell told the LA Times. "It's a win for us, as she'll be talking about it more on her show. And certainly people will come to 'Idol' to see how she does. There's a huge curiosity factor."

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