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“I’m happy for her, actually. I like Mariah. I think she’s going to find it difficult to say no. You’ve got to say no to people and she’s sweet,” he said, then quickly backtracked, adding, “No, I think she’ll be great.”

Cowell had reason to be diplomatic: Carey’s husband, Nick Cannon, is host of Cowell’s “America’s Got Talent” on NBC.

“American Idol” ended the 2011-12 season as the leading entertainment show and No. 2 overall, just behind NBC’s top-rated “Sunday Night Football.”

But the show aired its least-watched finale ever this season and the advertiser-favored young adult audience has been steadily shrinking. The show’s cachet hasn’t been helped by a run of champions who have failed to achieve the career sizzle of past competitors Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson.

Earlier Monday, veteran “Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said there’s a slender possibility that Lopez might return. His reasoning: Since she told Seacrest she was 99 percent sure she was leaving, that means there’s a 1 percent chance she won’t, Lythgoe said.

He said he hoped that was the case, although Lythgoe also told the critics’ annual summer meeting that he thought the show should be freshened each season with new judges.

But Lopez’s representative confirmed again Monday that she’s leaving “American Idol.” She originally made the announcement July 13, a day after Tyler said he was leaving.

Reilly also disputed Lythgoe’s comment, saying, “it’s 100 percent that Jennifer won’t be back to the show.”

“We came to a mutual decision with Jennifer and Steven,” he said, calling it a “great experience with both of them. Creatively, we were all happy.”

But it was decided “it was the time for a change,” Reilly said.

Lythgoe said his own contract is under negotiation, declining to comment further. Reilly later called Lythgoe “the best producer in the business.”

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AP Television Writer Frazier Moore and AP Global Entertainment and Lifestyles Editor Nekesa Moody in New York contributed to this report.

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