How Simon Cowell ‘Factor’-ed Into ‘American Idol’s’ Decline

Simon Cowell

Amid changes, a look at how the judge's shift undermined the hit Fox series

Simon Cowell has meted out his share of criticism as a judge of musical talent. So hopefully he can endure some leveled at him in hastening the descent of “American Idol,” whose ratings decline — triggering changes in front of and behind the camera — can be traced directly to the acerbic Brit.

After a titanic run that left everyone feeling understandably smug, “Idol’s” ratings have drifted downward faster than anyone anticipated. Recent moves have included the departure of longtime Fox reality kingpin Mike Darnell (with denials “Idol” in any way precipitated the decision), the appointment of David Hill to oversee Fox’s music competitions and the departure of “Idol’s” longtime producers.

SEE ALSO: Can David Hill Save ‘Idol’ and ‘X Factor’ for Fox?

One doesn’t need to dig too deep, however, to see the roots of the problem, which began when Cowell cornered Fox by announcing plans to leave “Idol” — costing the show its highest-profile and most distinctive judge — and launch his own competition, “The X Factor.”

Despite protestations “X Factor” would establish its own personality, it was clear early on this was simply a clone, “American Idol: Fall Edition.” Fox had thus broken from its resistance of airing “Idol” twice a year, which, officials had rightly argued, helped maintain its event status.

Back when Fox announced Cowell’s plans for the new show, Darnell acknowledged the network would have liked to keep its top judge on both programs, which wasn’t possible. So Cowell placed Fox in a difficult bind: Either buy his new venture and risk having it undercut “American Idol,” or let its highest-profile star take the concept to another U.S. network.

“There was no way we were ever going to lose Mr. Cowell,” Darnell said at the time. “We were never going to let that happen.”

Yet what did happen left “Idol” in the position of trying to find high-profile judges who could foster a sense of excitement regarding the series, even as Cowell was going through the same process launching “X Factor.” At a certain point, all the big-name buzz and churn began to yield diminishing returns, while viewers discovered listening to some of these pop stars opine wasn’t as entertaining as hearing them sing.

All of this was fairly predictable, especially once viewers got a glimpse of “X Factor” and realized there was little new about it beyond its production auspices. When the New York Times labeled Cowell’s new show “a clear success,” I couldn’t help but point out how premature that was, writing in December 2011, “For years, Fox resisted airing ‘American Idol” twice a year, as ABC does with ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and CBS does with ‘Survivor,’ because it didn’t want to gamble on diluting TV’s highest-rated program. So the big risk in ‘X Factor’ wasn’t just how well Simon Cowell’s answer to ‘Idol’ would do, but how much — or whether — the new show would cannibalize audience from his old one.”

Based on all the available evidence, let’s just say “The Walking Dead” isn’t the only flesh-eating show on TV.

In terms of what comes next, with the two singing competitions occupying a sizable 20% of its primetime schedule, Fox is stuck trying to find ways to improve what isn’t completely broken. After all, it’s not like the network (or anyone else) has three hours worth of hit series handily stashed away in a conference room.

Cowell is hardly the first TV star to overreach in assessing his appeal, but the collateral damage in this case was significant.

“America needs a second show, a different type of show,” Cowell said, 16 months before “X Factor” — very much the same type of show — made its U.S. debut.

As for questions then about “Idol” being potentially weakened, Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly told reporters, “We’re not losing Simon Cowell. We’re potentially gaining another big headache for [rival networks] in the fall.”

But as it turns out, most of the headaches have been Fox’s — proving that despite the credibility he established judging talent, you can’t always believe what Simon says.

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  1. jobson says:

    Please, please read the fantastic novel by Ben Elton called “Chart Throb”, about a Cowell-like producer of an “Idol”-type show. Even better than “American Dreamz”, it darkly satirizes the format, pointing out the glaringly obvious foundational misnomer everyone seems to overlook: “Idol” and its ilk are not “singing competitions”, any more than “Shark Tank” is a business-school tutorial. They are reality entertainment, and as such, they need strong personalities and storylines. Which, “Idol”, sans-Cowell, can’t much do anymore.

  2. Simon is weird. And yes, he was insulting. But beneath all that, he was RIGHT most of the time. As far as Nikki Manaj, what a PITA! A pitifully poor judge. Mariah was good but too nice. I love Randy, but I have tired of his repetitious sayings. I thought Keith was right on with his comments. I would like to see him return. Jennifer Lopez was a really good judge who’s suggestions were spot-on. It will be a shame if the show folds because they have presented wonderful talent. Unfortunately, Idol is a popularity contest. The BEST SINGER does not always win.

  3. semour samuals says:

    When will people realize that Simons light is fading. He is not relevant any longer. Simons greatness was he was a person of the people and had his opinions based on his experience. Today he is a weird recluse confined to his LA and London homes just taking ideas from his staff. Like Idol, X Factor and and all the new shows he is trying to develop they are all flops. Right now Simons ego and wallet are the only two big things around. The faster Fox finds a new format without the likes of Cowell the sooner its ratings will rise. The voice has real judges with real ideas. Not a group of puppets controlled by Simon.

  4. JR says:

    Your argument doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. What you have now in “American Idol” and “X Factor” is the inevitable ratings erosion because there has not been a star launched off of these types of shows since Carrie Underwood. That’s way too long ago.

    • Kevin F. Boone says:

      Are u kidding: …”there has not been a star…”? Phillip Philips, Fantasia (she’s trending fast and her new CD is doing well because it’s fantastic – just what her fans have been aching for – and she’s all over the place), Scotty McCreery’s a bonafide country artist, etc. All the Idols have careers but they don’t need to be superstars like Carrie Underwood or my girl Kelly Clarkson. And the contestants in general: Academy Award winning actress and Grammy Award winning singer superstar Jennifer Hudson / American Idol judge (Season 13); successful businesswoman and recording artist Kimberley Locke; rocker Chris Daughtry; recording artist and TV star Katherine McPhee; award-winning country artist Laurin Elaina; TV personality and country star Kellie Pickler; international pop star Adam Lambert; country star Crystal Bowersox; recording artist and Broadway star Clay Aiken; recording star David Archuleta; Broadway star and Tony nominee Constantine Maroulis; contemporary Christian music artist/lyricist Colton Dixon; and Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet and Justin Guarini, to name a few are, are doing well too.

      What some don’t understand is that the natures of all entertainment industries have changed enormously since IDOL’s first season. Technology has turned things upside down and things are evolving at a (too) fast pace, and quite frankly, few know what they’re doing in the sense that not many have gotten a handle on what’s gonna work best and for who, particularly if a new artist is involved. The talent’s there. Idol’s problem is that they’ve evolved without focus. They need to take a risk and go back to some of their foundational prerogatives, theme nights for instance: forget individual artists – shows devoted to The Beatles Repertoire, 60s Motown, Country, Broadway, Burt Bacharach, The Year They Were Born, and Artists Currently On The Charts. Get rid of the choirs. Tone down the intro packages and let the contestants perform for longer durations; if one of the Top 10 wants backup singers, fine. I’d prefer having Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, my baby, back on the show. NOT. So what to do? Find a Simon – someone who will tell it like it is and don’t censor him or her unless expletives are uttered.That someone doesn’t have to be in the business, just honest and to the point. My 3 panelists – choose: Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia and Joan Rivers. Promote past Idol winners and contestants by having them on the show to perform, one night each week – and have folk already trending come on, Justin Beiber, for instance. Y’all know what I mean. Shut Up…lol! I could go on and on but I have to take a dump.

    • Teri Eide says:

      Simon leaving AI is not different than Katie Couric leaving the today show. We all thought it would never be the same, but the shows survived. Now both are struggling. Understanding there are contracts to think about in both cases…listen to the viewers! Sometimes it pays to buy someone out of a contract and get them off the air than to wait until the shows are so bad, the viewers go elsewhere. That is what is happening in both case. Nikki Manaj was a disaster waiting to happen and while the producers were thinking “ratings” the viewers were telling you it was unacceptable! She should have been let go immediately and replaced with someone who would follow the rules and had class. There are rules, aren’t there? Even Howard Stern is doing a good job at judging, and who would have thunk??? In all cases, if it weren’t for the viewers, the ratings would be down,so LISTEN to us!

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