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

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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