Simon Cowell has been telling everyone for years that he would exit “American Idol” after this season — but no one believed him.
Now they do.
Cowell took the stage during Fox’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour and confirmed that he would leave “Idol” after this year, in order to finally bring Brit TV sensation “The X Factor” to the states.
And in what might be a TV press tour first, Cowell even signed his new contract with the network in front of reporters.
As a result, the worst-kept secret in “Idol”-ville has finally come true. “X Factor,” which was created by Cowell, will bow in fall 2011 on Fox.
That means Cowell will be off the air for 16 months — although Fox execs didn’t rule out an appearance or two by Cowell on “Idol” next year.
Cowell’s Syco label and FremantleMedia North America are behind “The X Factor.” (Sony owns the franchise.)
A deal had been rumored for weeks — all while Fox denied that one was imminent. Nonetheless, it became clear over the weekend that the network was conjuring up some sort of Cowell-related splash in time for its day on press tour.
When Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice and prexy Kevin Reilly were late to their own executive session at the confab, word spread throughout the Langham hotel in Pasadena that there could be only one reason for their tardiness: The final deal points on a Cowell deal were being hammered out.
And that’s exactly what was going on. Rice and Reilly jumped out on stage and attempted to stall for a few minutes by throwing out the usual eye-glazing stats about their fall performance. Critics, anxious to get to the real news, held back from screaming at the execs to get on with it.
Finally, the duo introduced Cowell — dressed as usual in his trademark black v-neck T-shirt — and the acerbic judge spilled the beans.
“We reached an agreement formally at about half past 10 this morning,” said Cowell, who was quickly corrected by Rice — the deal was done was even later than that.
“Where we have come to and agreed is that X Factor will launch in America in 2011, with me judging the show and exec producing the show. Because of that this will be my last season on ‘American Idol,’ this year,” Cowell said.
(No word on what was immediately screamed at the headquarters of 19 Entertainment — which produces “Idol,” but not “Factor.”)
Moving forward, Fox will air “X-Factor” in the fall, “American Idol” in the winter and spring, and “So You Think You Can Dance” in summer — making for a full year of two-night reality franchises.
“I love the spine of having these shows through out the year,” Reilly said.
The real drama this season on “American Idol,” even before its bow, has centered on the fate of Cowell.
The show is locked on Fox through at least 2011, but Cowell’s megabucks deal with it was expiring at the end of this season.
Cowell had said all along that he would leave the show after this year — something his brother also recently said in the U.K. press.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long long time, this whole process,” Cowell said of his dealings with Fox. “I’ve said all along that at the end of this contract I’m going to leave the show. Everyone thought I was negotiating… (but) I felt like doing something different.”
Fox alternative topper Mike Darnell said he would have loved to have kept Cowell on both — but said that was a non-starter for the TV personality/producer.
Cowell already appears on both “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” in the U.K. in addition to “Idol” here — and because his company produces those two shows overseas, it’s unlikely he’d give them up to spend more time on two shows in the U.S.
“He couldn’t possibly have done four shows,” Darnell said. “Those shows are huge smashes there, and he’s also loyal to ITV. He decided this was best.”
It also allows Cowell to focus his energies on a show he has a stake in — as opposed to “Idol,” which doesn’t come from his company. In the U.K., 19 Ent. founder Simon Fuller sued Cowell and FremantleMedia over “X Factor,” accusing them of ripping off the “Idol” format. (Both sides eventually settled out of court, as part of a Cowell’s 2005 contract renewal with “Idol.”)
“X Factor” took over the spot once held by “Pop Idol” on ITV; here across the pond, Fox hopes both can co-exist at different times of the year.
“I want to leave ‘Idol’ this year bigger and better than its been before,” Cowell said. “We’ve done the auditions, it feels fresh, it feels relevant. I’m excited about going back onto the show, and hope it’s going to be higher than it was last year.”
At stake, of course, is the future of “Idol,” perhaps the most important TV franchise in history.
“The American public loves ‘American Idol,'” Rice said. “Simon is irreplaceable. It’s incumbent to us that the show remains vital and entertaining.”
To that end, Darnell said he would look to find a judge to replace Cowell that would come from a completely different stripe. In other words, the network won’t be bringing in another nasty Brit.
“We’ll come up with a new vision for the judging panel,” he said. “You can’t replace him, or people will smell that. Ellen was not a replacement for Paula.”
“Idol” has helped Fox win primetime’s adults 18-49 crown for five straight seasons — and given that the net enters January as the top network for the first time, a sixth year is virtually assured.
Cowell is considered a critical part of what makes the “Idol” formula a smash, which is why he reportedly makes as much as $50 million annually from the show.
Cowell’s departure will rep the latest blow for “Idol,” which enters this year without judge Paula Abdul (who’s being replaced by Ellen DeGeneres) for the first time. The show also encountered some bumps last year, as the decision to add a fourth judge (Kara DioGuardi) disrupted its rhythm.
Cowell said he didn’t think “X Factor” would have a negative impact on the fate of “Idol.”
“I wouldn’t have put ‘X Factor’ on if I didn’t think it could exist separately,” Cowell said. “I do two shows in the U.K., ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘The X-Factor,’ and both had their highest years ever… I’m very proud of what (‘Idol’) has achieved. America needs a second show, a different type of show. I’ll put my absolute heart and soul to make this as good as possible.”
Fox declined to comment on “Idol’s” potential renewal — it’s widely believed that a three-year extension is in the works — but Rice said that the net had a “long-term agreement with 19 and Fremantle. ‘American Idol’ will run for many, many more seasons.”
A weakened “Idol” could be good news for Fox’s rivals — but Reilly advised that those other nets not pop corks just yet.
“We’re not losing Simon Cowell,” he said. “We’re potentially gaining another big headache for them in the fall.”
According to Rice, the network did make a play to try to keep Cowell on both shows — but it wasn’t an option for Cowell.
Unlike “Idol,” the age range for “X Factor” goes from teen up through old age; musical groups are also welcome. “X Factor” judges also play a role in mentoring the contestants — and are judged as well, given the success or failure of their performers.
“This country, thank God, still has thousands and thousands of talented people waiting to be discovered,” Cowell said.
Cowell also hinted that Abdul could join Cowell as a judge on “X Factor.”
“I adore Paula,” he said. “Whatever happens, I will be working with her in some capacity because I miss her. You’re just going to have to watch this space.”
Rice said Fox will air approximately 40 hours of “X Factor” in 2011. The U.K. producers of “X Factor” will travel to the U.S. to help launch Fox’s version.
In the end, the odd duck out in this scenario may be “Idol.” Cowell got what he wanted — “X Factor,” finally in America — and Fox got to keep Cowell.
“There was no way we were ever going to lose Mr. Cowell,” Darnell said. “We were never going to let that happen.”