By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; C01
Simon Cowell, the always blunt Brit whom viewers love -- and love to hate -- on Fox's "American Idol," is leaving the country's most watched TV program after the coming season.
But he will not leave the network altogether; he'll become a judge, and executive producer, on his own like-minded singing competition series, "The X Factor," starting in the fall of 2011.
Which means this will be the last edition of "Idol" to have the field to itself. The ninth edition of "Idol" debuts Tuesday night.
Thereafter, "X Factor" will air in the fall and "Idol" in the spring.
Cowell, who has been "Idol's" biggest star, told TV reporters Monday that "Idol" will survive without him.
Of course we have yet to find out whether the show will survive the loss of judge Paula Abdul, who took a powder as a result of a contract dispute with the show producers and the Fox network. Ellen DeGeneres replaces Paula this season, though she won't show up on-screen until Hollywood Week.
"It's like having a good player on a good football team," Cowell said of his departure. "When the player retires, the team continues to be successful."
But it's nothing like that, skeptics might say. It's more like NBC trying to continue "Seinfeld" after losing Jerry after losing Elaine.
Simon said he's leaving "Idol" because its workload and filming "The X Factor" in Britain would have killed him.
So, having to chose one, Cowell is walking away from the reported $36 million a year he makes to be on "American Idol," so you can just imagine how much he stands to make on "The X Factor" if it takes off in the U.S.
"I was offered a lot of money to stay on," Cowell told the assembled critics, bloggers, reporters and columnists at Winter TV Press Tour 2010.
"That wasn't the reason behind it. I wanted to do something different. I wanted a new challenge."
(Actually Cowell's decision to leave "Idol" probably has more to do with a settlement to a 2004 lawsuit filed by "Idol" exec producer Simon Fuller against "Idol" production partner Fremantle Media and Cowell, claiming "The X Factor" was a knockoff of the "Idol" format. As part of that settlement, Cowell agreed that so long as he was a judge on "American Idol" he would not produce "The X Factor" in the United States.)
"Idol," which launched the careers of winners Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, as well as non-winners Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert, has been ranked the country's No. 1 series for the past five years. But its audience has shrunk from its 2005 high of around 30 million. And, maybe more worrisome for Fox, the median age of the show's audience has jumped from 32 in Season 1 to 44 last season, which means the show is not doing such a hot job recruiting new, younger viewers.
Simon's new deal with Fox, which The Reporters Who Cover Television had been hyperventilating over for weeks and weeks, was only wrapped up about an hour before the Q&A session. Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice had Cowell sign the contract onstage.
Here's a good place to mention that Fox was always careful to air only one cycle of "Idol" per TV season, lest viewers tire of it from overexposure.
But Rice, onstage with Cowell, insisted the two shows are totally different.
On "American Idol," for instance, you can't participate if you're older than 28. On "The X Factor" you can be old and audition. As old as Susan Boyle, Cowell noted.
Of course Boyle was not discovered on the British edition of "The X Factor"; she was discovered on "Britain's Got Talent" -- a show on which Cowell is a judge and which he created. He's also an executive producer of "America's Got Talent," which airs on NBC and on which Boyle performed.
Still with me?
Singing groups may also participate on "The X Factor."
And the auditions phase of "X Factor" is conducted in a large hall with three or four thousand people instead of swanky hotel or convention hall rooms around the country, as on "Idol."
And each judge is assigned to mentor some of the finalists.
(Rice insisted staunchly that what people love about "Idol" is the format. We hope he never changes.)
And another thing, added Cowell -- he would not have put "X Factor" on in the U.S. if he didn't think the shows could coexist on Fox.
But, of course, as mentioned before, he owns "X Factor" and does not own "Idol," so he loses points for lack of objectivity.
All of his points.
Rice would not speculate who would replace Cowell on "Idol," noting that announcing the departure now gives the network time to find the right chemistry with the other judges: Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi and DeGeneres.
Cowell, likewise, declined to say who would join him in the judges panel on the U.S. version of "The X Factor," except to say "it's not going to happen" with Victoria Beckham -- she was a guest judge during the audition phase of "Idol" after Abdul bailed. He also said he misses Paula terribly and "will be working with her in some capacity" because "I adore Paula."
To recap: Paula in. Posh Spice out.Banking on 'Glee'
In other Fox news, the network has picked up a second season of "Glee" and plans to add about three cast members.
Last time the show about a high school glee club was cast, the producers conducted a nationwide search for unknown talent. This time, they're going to ask everyone who auditions to sign releases so Fox can air a reality series about the process.
Sadly, viewers don't get to decide which thespians get the roles -- but your input is always appreciated, the Fox suits said.
The reality series finale will actually be the second season debut, which will be the first you'll know which actors won the competition for each role.