Paula Out, Katy Perry In

Fox nearly slammed the door on Paula Abdul’s return to “American Idol” — but not quite.

“We made an offer we feel is very fair to Paula” that included a substantial raise, Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice told the Television Critics Association on Thursday.

But Abdul decided against returning for the singing contest’s ninth season, he said.

Female pop stars will serve as guest judges for the seven-week audition process set to begin Friday in Denver, with Victoria Beckham and Katy Perry the first to be announced by Fox.

Asked after the session what the network would do if Abdul sought to reopen negotiations, Rice replied: “I have no expectation that Paula’s going to do that. And in terms of the negotiations themselves, the negotiations have concluded.”

When asked what Fox’s reaction would be if Abdul agreed to take the network’s last offer, Rice replied he didn’t expect her to. But he didn’t respond when queried again about what the network would do if she agreed to it.

The offer is for a multiyear, eight-figure deal that represents a 30 percent increase for Abdul, according to a person familiar with the talks. The person, who was not authorized to speak publicly, asked not to be identified.

“My understanding is that her only issue is money,” Rice said.

Nigel Lythgoe, former “American Idol” producer and executive producer and judge with Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” said he’s invited Abdul to meet him and “talk about what opportunities are out there.”

But he said Thursday he’s reserving judgment about whether she’s a free agent or not.

“I still don’t know that she’s going to leave ‘Idol,'” Lythgoe told another session of the critics’ association. “I know this is going on, and the tweeting and the official statements and everything. But until ‘Idol’ goes on the air, there’s always opportunities for renegotiations. Who knows. Who knows what might happen.”

During his Q&A session with reporters, Rice said the network is saddened by Abdul’s decision but looks forward to finding a permanent replacement for her between now and the return of TV’s No. 1 show in January.

He called Abdul an important part of the show and acknowledged that there will be “different dynamic” without her.

“There’s also something very exciting about that,” Rice added.

Original judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson are returning for the ninth season, which starts next January, and will be joined for a second year by Kara DioGuardi.

Cowell’s contract expires after the season and Fox is talking to him about returning, Rice said.

“We have a wonderful relationship with Simon. We are in the middle of a new contract negotiation with him and our expectation is he will remain with the show,” the executive said.

Abdul’s departure comes as “Idol” has joined most other network shows in losing viewers. The Wednesday edition of “American Idol” averaged 25.5 million this past season, still easily the most popular show on TV, compared with 26.8 million in the 2007-08 season; 30 million in both 2006-07 and 2005-06.

Rice took the Abdul issue head-on at the start of the session that included Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.

“Obviously, everybody’s aware that Paula will not be returning to ‘Idol.’ It’s something that’s very saddening to us,” Rice said. She was the only judge whose contract was up this year and Fox “very much wanted her to return.”

Negotiations had been going on since he arrived at the network four months ago, Rice said, and for most of last season.

Reilly acknowledged that Abdul created “unbelievably successful chemistry” on the show but said other programs have confronted losing key figures or characters — including the late, famed anchorman Walter Cronkite and Diane of “Cheers” — and said he’s confident “American Idol” will rebound.

“You just compared Walter Cronkite to Paula Abdul,” a reporter observed, drawing from Reilly a rueful “terrific. It was all going so well.”