Cowell’s Exit Complicates ‘Idol’ Outlook

Simon Cowell
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Simon Cowell

At the end of an “American Idol” season called boring and absurd by critics, the departure of Simon Cowell from the judges’ table is likely to trump whatever decision the voters make about the final two singers, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze.

The show’s producers are making Mr. Cowell’s farewell a major part of Wednesday night’s finale at the Nokia Theater here. Paula Abdul and some former “Idol” winners are expected to be there.

Mr. Cowell’s exit is the biggest material change in the eight-year history of the show. Many people credit him — a caustic, cocky judge — with making “Idol” into America’s most popular reality show and a profit center for the Fox network, and some critics are questioning how compelling the show will be without him.

In the shortcut to the American dream that is “Idol,” Mr. Cowell has been the gatekeeper.

“He’s the patriarch who rules with an iron fist, he’s the villain, he’s the dragon you have to slay to get to your fortune,” said Katherine Meizel, an instructor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University and the author of “Idolized,” a forthcoming book about the show. “Losing him, I think ‘Idol’ might have lost the plot, literally.”

Jake Austen, the author of “TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From ‘American Bandstand’ to ‘American Idol,’ ” said that Mr. Cowell’s departure certainly made it seem as if “Idol” were “in its death throes, despite it still being one of the highest-rated shows.”

Feeling the pressure, Fox executives say the search for a replacement will happen in earnest this summer.

“We have to find a judge to replace Simon that provides both music credibility and incredible entertainment value,” Peter Rice, the chairman of entertainment for the Fox Networks Group, told reporters last week.

Mr. Cowell is leaving “Idol” and importing a British show, “The X Factor,” to the United States. That show will start on Fox in fall 2011.

There has been speculation that Fox will find a way to woo Mr. Cowell back to “Idol” in some capacity next season. But to date, Mr. Cowell has been rather open about his eagerness to leave — something that viewers have sensed all this season. Talking to Oprah Winfrey last week, he suggested that he was bored with the show and said “they,” the audience, “deserve more than that.” Talking to Larry King last month, he said, “You know, you can’t keep doing the same thing year after year after year. You can’t.”

The scourge of many contestants and a savior for others, Mr. Cowell delivered critiques and insults that have secured him a place in television history. He recalled in his 2003 autobiography that he hurled his first insult at 4, on Christmas Day in 1963, when his mother donned a furry hat, and he told her, “Mum, you look like a poodle.”

When he helped to bring “Idol,” a version of a British show, “Pop Idol,” to the United States in 2002, it instantly gained millions of followers, with his judgments as an undeniable draw. Among his comments about “Idol” competitors these past eight years:

“Utterly horrendous.”

“There are only so many words I can drag out of my vocabulary to say how awful that was.”

“If you lived 2,000 years ago and sang like that, they would have stoned you.”

Ms. Meizel said that Mr. Cowell hadn’t “just been judging Americans — he’s been teaching us how to judge.”

Forbes estimates that Mr. Cowell made $75 million last year, much of it thanks to “Idol.” But just how important is he to the singing franchise? The television industry won’t be able to say for sure until after his replacement starts.

On the one hand, he is “able to captivate an audience in a way that no one has replicated,” The Hollywood Reporter said this week in naming him the most powerful person in reality TV.

On the other hand, as Mr. Rice noted last week, the “Idol” format “works around the world” without Mr. Cowell’s presence.

The number of viewers watching “Idol” has dropped about 9 percent this season, continuing a gradual decline that is common for big, aging TV shows. (In fact, most other shows erode faster.) Kevin Reilly, the entertainment president at Fox, directly addressed the ratings in a presentation to advertisers last week, asking, “Is ‘Idol’ aging?”

“Maybe it is a little bit,” he said. “I hope I look so good as I age.”

The 10th season is scheduled to start next January. A bevy of new judge names has been rumored, including Jamie Foxx, Elton John, the music executive Tommy Mottola and Harry Connick Jr.

It is likely that the producers will seek a judge who inspires fear and awe in the contestants, provoking the emotions that work so well on television. (Sanjaya Malakar, a contestant in Season 6, recalled in his autobiography that “I was trembling like a tuning fork” the first time he sang for Mr. Cowell.)

Mr. Cowell’s brother Tony, a broadcast journalist, said replacing him with a “Simon sound-alike” was an “appalling idea.”

“It would never work,” he said. “Simon has made it clear they should choose someone with extensive knowledge and experience of the music business.”

Of the other judges, Randy Jackson’s contract will end after next season, and Kara DioGuardi has said that hers runs “a few” seasons. Ellen DeGeneres, who joined this season, is committed to four more seasons. The show’s host and Mr. Cowell’s on-screen nemesis, Ryan Seacrest, recently signed a new contract that will take him through two more seasons.

In the interview with Mr. King, Mr. Cowell made an offhand remark that he would be watching “Idol” from home next year, giving Mr. Jackson an idea.

“I’m going to have a phone on the desk,” Mr. Jackson told Mr. King. “I’m going to call and say, ‘Simon, so what did you really think of that?’ ”

“Like the bat phone,” Mr. Cowell said. “I love that.”