By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Viewers are gearing up to crown the first female winner of "American Idol" in six years, but the biggest drama at the once-dominant Fox TV singing contest is taking place backstage over which of the celebrity judges will be voted off.
Audiences for what was the most-watched TV show in the United States for eight years have slumped to new lows in the current 12th season, despite the addition of singers Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban to the judging panel.
Veteran record producer Randy Jackson, the only member of the panel to have been with the show since it started in 2002, announced on Thursday that he was quitting after viewers vote for their winner next week.
Jackson's announcement came a day after entertainment website TheWrap reported that Carey, Minaj and Urban would not be asked back, along with the show's longtime executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe.
TheWrap.com said that Fox television was turning against paying huge salaries for big-name judges, only to see ratings fall.
Fox and production company FremantleMedia on Thursday declined to comment on the overhaul reported by TheWrap that have overshadowed the battle between singers Angie Miller, Candice Glover and Kree Harrison to reach the two-part finale.
Carey, one of the world's best-known recording artists, is getting a reported $17 million salary, with rapper Minaj pulling in about $12 million and country singer Urban around $7 million a year for their jobs on the contest.
Audiences for "American Idol" have fallen to around 12 million viewers per episode in recent months, compared to about 30 million during the show's heyday in 2006 and 2007.
The show is facing stiff competition from NBC rival "The Voice."
The report by TheWrap followed a story in The Hollywood Reporter last month that said producers had considered a mid-season replacement of Carey with Jennifer Lopez, who had quit the panel in 2012.
A Fox television spokeswoman termed that report "another ridiculous 'Idol' judge rumor."
DIVAS GRAB THE SPOTLIGHT
Minaj told "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest in a Thursday interview for his E! News show that she enjoyed being a judge. But she dodged the issue of whether she would be back.
"I feel happy here and I have to thank them for giving me this chance. They could have picked anyone in the world. And they picked me. So that's all I'll say about that," Minaj said.
Lyndsey Parker, managing editor of Yahoo! Music, said that Minaj had been met with a backlash from the core, middle-aged and family "Idol" audience, especially after reports last year of a feud between her and Carey.
"I think they were hoping she would bring in some kind of youthful audience but that doesn't appear to have happened," Parker told Reuters.
As for Carey, "she came to the panel with a lot more credibility than many others, but I don't think she is very good TV - a little bit low energy - and she rambles," Parker said.
The backstage drama comes in a strong season for women, with female singers dominating the final rounds for the first time in years.
On Thursday night, Seacrest will announce which contestants viewers have chosen to be in the finale in Los Angeles next Wednesday and Thursday.
Battling for the two spots are piano-playing pop singer Miller, 18, from Massachusetts; former travel agent turned powerhouse soul singer Glover, 23, from South Carolina; and 22-year-old country singer Harrison, from Texas, whose personal story and the loss of both her parents has won as many hearts as her voice.
Whoever is crowned the new "American Idol" will be the first female winner since Jordin Sparks in 2007.
Fox is a unit of NewsCorp.
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Xavier Briand)