November 24, 2005 06:00 AM

The fifth season of American Idol is about a month away – but nobody knows if tart-tongued Simon Cowell will be there to hurl insults from his accustomed chair.

According to The New York Times, Cowell s contract negotiations are not yet complete, leaving FOX executives fearful he may walk. Cowell is in a strong bargaining position because he s set to market X-Factor – the super-successful British talent show he created in 2004 – and could take it to another network.

Cowell’s $8 million annual salary already makes him one of the highest-paid celebs on TV, but now he can demand bigger bucks and more control of the show. (Cowell also wants to sign the winner and runner-up of the next Idol competition to his own record label, a right he is set to lose this coming season.)

Odds are he ll stay, however. “We all know they can t carry on with Idol without Simon,” an on-set source tells PEOPLE. “He’ll be back. But he s in a good position to make things rough right now.”

All of this makes for one unhappy Idol set. “The tension is high,” says another set source. “They’re cutting back with things like travel, hotels and food for the staff. And no raises.”

But as long as the show goes on, judge Randy Jackson fearlessly predicts the season will be a winner. It’s hot, man, he says. We still have some great, amazing talent.”

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