No matter how many Kellys, Clays or Taylors are created by “American Idol,” the Fox show’s face will always be Simon Cowell.

His straightforward and, on occasion, caustic manner makes him an easy target, but it’s the selling point every January when the show returns to air. He is inked for the next five years for a reported $30 million, making him one of TV’s biggest stars. But his role in selecting a star of the future has him equally cherished on the music side.

After a mailroom stint at EMI Music Publishing in 1979, Cowell started his own label and TV production company. One label, Fanfare, went belly up in 1989, but as a consultant for BMG, he got an early jump on the boy-band craze, launching Westlife, 5ive and Curiosity Killed the Cat. He also created the label S Records, which inked the first two U.K. “Pop Idol” winners, and in 2003 sold half of it to BMG.

On an industry chart that tracks the success of A&R execs, Cowell was ranked No. 4 in the world in 2005. Forbes put him at No. 29 on this year’s power ranking of celebrities. Part of that owes to the success of the “popera” act he signed, Il Divo, which has sold millions of albums.

“(Cowell) always understood the fun of discovery, finding talent,” says RCA Music Group chairman Clive Davis, whose label has inked all the winners, runners-up and a few other finalists. “And I must give him credit for being the entrepreneur to take ‘American Idol’ where he has taken it. I take my hat off to him.”

The Cowell touch, however, did not extend to his ABC show “American Inventor,” which limped to the patent office finish line, and many eyes will be on his latest, “Duets,” to see if it drums up any ratings. His “America’s Got Talent” was pulling in about 10 million viewers per show for NBC.

“(‘Idol’) certainly has dramatically affected the entire television landscape,” Davis notes. “The partnership that I’ve enjoyed with the ‘Idol’ winners has led to artists (who) now have careers and as a result has enriched the franchise because it has made the prize so meaningful.”