LOS ANGELES - "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson said on Friday he did not know whether fellow panelist Simon Cowell would be leaving the show but fevered speculation on his future was a distraction from the TV singing contest's mission of finding the next superstar.
Jackson also told reporters ahead of Tuesday's 9th season opener of the top-rated U.S. show that he missed departed judge Paula Abdul, and that the dynamics on the panel had changed.
"She is one of our best friends. I miss that. We look down the table sometimes and think, 'Where's Paula?'," said Jackson. "It's going to take a little getting used to. We're really sad about that."
Cowell's contract as a judge with the Fox show ends in May 2010. His brother Tony said in a radio podcast in December that he would then quit "Idol" to focus on bringing his "The X Factor" singing contest to the United States in 2011.
Asked if Cowell would leave, Jackson said: "I really don't know until I hear it from him...The rumors get so wild and crazy, you just don't know what to believe."
"It is pretty much a distraction. I think people get a little side-tracked with that...Let's also focus on what we are judging and what the actual heartbeat of the show really is, and it is about finding that next superstar talent," he said.
Cowell told USA Today on Thursday that he was still in discussions with Fox, but added: "Whether I'm on it or off it, I promise you -- and I really mean it -- I think the show will flourish without me. I genuinely do."
Talk show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres takes the place of Abdul this season but will not join the panel until aspiring singers from nationwide auditions are brought to Hollywood.
Jackson said shooting for those episodes starts next week and will be shown in early February.
"Ellen is funny, very charismatic and really cool...I think she will bring expertise from being a fellow entertainer who has been hugely successful. I think she will give the home viewer a real voice on the panel," he said.
Pop stars Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige and Joe Jonas are among the celebrity judges for the early audition rounds. Abdul abruptly quit the show last summer in a contract renewal dispute.
Abdul's departure, the uncertainty over Cowell and slipping ratings over the past 3 years have led to questions about how long "American Idol" can continue its reign.
"I think it can go on for some time," said Jackson. I think it is the best music reality show that has ever been on TV."