01.11.10

Why Simon Is Quitting Idol

American Idol's Simon Cowell announced he is leaving the show, and is starting a competitor on Fox. Richard Rushfield on the bitter clashes that led to the end.

Season 9 of American Idol starts Tuesday. And Monday afternoon, its biggest star, Simon Cowell—along with Fox's chief executives—announced he is leaving the show after the season ends to launch an American version of The X Factor, another singing competition, for the network.

The scene at the Fox press conference was a dramatic one as the noon hour approached. Reports had come out—including an earlier version of this story on The Daily Beast—that today was the day the Cowell rumors would be confirmed. The ballroom, filled with television journalists, was buzzing.

Cowell’s ex-girlfriend and still-close friend, Terri Seymour, appeared in back of the room. Her presence meant only one thing: Cowell must be here somewhere.

For two seasons, Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller were barely speaking to each other.

Fox Chairman Peter Rice and the network’s entertainment president, Kevin Reilly, appeared on the stage. After spending a few minutes creating suspense, Rice said, “I know that you guys are looking for clarity.” He then introduced Cowell to the stage.

View our coverage of American Idol Season 9
Without delay, Cowell got to the point. Yes, he is remaking his British show The X Factor for American viewers, scheduled on Fox for fall 2011. "Because of that,” Cowell said, “This will be my last season on American Idol."

So how did we get here?

Cowell is walking away from what may be the most lucrative job in the history of television. His departure will mark the denouement of a collaboration that in the past decade has been at the very apex of entertainment—last season, an average of 26 million viewers watched American Idol. But somehow the working relationship between Cowell and the rest of the show’s machine has transformed from the close bond felt by a ragtag band of brothers storming the gates of show business into a marriage of convenience fraught with bitterness.

For years now, even as the show has continued to dominate the television landscape, life on the set was constantly tested by the love/hate battle that raged between American Idol’s creator (Simon Fuller) and its iconic star (Cowell)–a symbiotic relationship with stakes so high, few dared to imagine its end.

Backstage—as young singers fought to the death—a war smoldered. Just three months ago, at the over-the-top 50th birthday gala Cowell threw for himself (complete with waiters in Simon Cowell masks, Simon Cowell wallpaper and alphabet soup stocked with the letters S-I-M-O-N), the star alluded to the push-pull of his Idol brotherhood, many of whom were in attendance. Speaking to the crowd, he said, “We may not always see eye to eye, but we both know that if one of us needed the other, we would be there.”

When American Idol begins its 10th season in one year, Cowell will, in fact, no longer be there. As the star of The X Factor, Cowell’s role will morph from in-house Idol diva to that of competitor trying to kill his old show.

In leaving Idol, Cowell walks away from an unspeakably well-compensated job, one requiring very little in return for the vast wealth it bestowed. For what is said to have been in the neighborhood of $50 million a year (with much much, much more on the table if he had returned), Judge Cowell was required for four months each year to show up two days a week for about three hours at the CBS lot where American Idol is filmed. He would then sit in a chair, listen to a handful of performances, and deliver off-the-cuff opinions about them. No rehearsal. And visitors to the set can attest, within no more than 15 minutes of the credits rolling, Cowell was invariably behind the wheel of his Bugatti (or another from his fleet) driving away, his day’s work done. In sheer dollars-per-hours of work, Cowell’s deal is incomparable to anything else in entertainment—or sports—now or in recent memory.

And still, he is walking away.

From the earliest days of Idol legend, the Cowell/Fuller relationship was at the show’s core. Both U.K. pop music industry pros, a year apart in age, their dark hair cropped with similar brush cuts, the men appeared to many as almost brothers—not to mention they had the same given names. When Fuller first pitched the idea of the television talent hunt/singing competition, what would be Pop Idol in Britain, it was Cowell who accompanied him to the meetings. But as the show exploded first in the U.K., and then in the much larger American market, it began to dawn on Cowell that in this empire he had helped create, he was, in the final analysis “just talent.” The control, the power, the ownership of the show, all resided with others, including his old chum Fuller.

The great break came in 2004, when Cowell did the unthinkable and went on the air in the U.K. with a rival singing competition show, The X Factor, sending him to war with the Idol brand. Reflecting, perhaps, the difference in sensibilities between Idol and its star, X Factor was a show designed to make Idol look low-key and sedate—it had heavy emphasis on fights, backstage drama and public humiliation. Where Idol, beneath the glitz, retains an almost old-fashioned focus on the stories of young dreamers seeking their shot through song.

The resulting conflict, with its ensuing lawsuit and court battles, led to what Idol staffers call the darkest period in the show’s run—for two seasons Cowell and Fuller were barely speaking to each other.

The conflict was ultimately resolved, but the final settlement, like the Treaty of Versailles, ended the combat while actually aggravating the differences and resentments that sparked it.

Under the settlement, Cowell won the issue directly at stake: Pop Idol was shut down, and The X Factor was allowed to continue, having been handed an uncontested singing-competition monopoly on the British airwaves. (In Britain, it has continued as a huge success in both ratings and as a pop-culture phenomenon.)

But Cowell signed away the bigger prize—America—agreeing that while continuing judging duties on American Idol, he would not bring X Factor to the U.S., and would not appear in any other American program. This pact guaranteed that, even though he appeared to be at the top of the American entertainment industry with Idol, he would still be “just talent”—a situation that, as a wrangler of talent himself, could never truly satisfy him.

As the years under the agreement wore on, Cowell found ways to satisfy his hunger to be the man in control, creating a string of shows like American Inventor and America’s Got Talent. The second show became a summer hit for NBC—its U.K.-version, Britain’s Got Talent, also starring Cowell, introduced the world to Susan Boyle.

And so he began to assert himself more on the Idol set. Cowell is said to have clashed with the flamboyant and brilliant executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, American Idol’s showrunner, who eventually left after its seventh season.

As early as a year ago, Idol’s overlords—meaning FremantleMedia (the company that produces the show), 19 Entertainment (Fuller’s company), and Fox—began trying to extend his contract. They put on the table a staggeringly huge offer for Cowell’s continued services on Idol; they were also willing to alter the original agreement so Cowell could export The X Factor to the U.S., and be a judge on it. The terms were said to be vastly more than the approximate $50 million a year he earns now. And for a year Cowell’s answer has been, “Let me think about it,” as he mused aloud in interviews about how everything comes to an end.

Onscreen, meanwhile, Cowell and his fellow judges’ roles had nearly become the show. Cowell’s play squabbles with Paula Abdul and his charged banter with host Ryan Seacrest chewed up precious airtime. Visitors to the set, and the singers themselves, noted how Cowell would regularly chat with his fellow jurists—Abdul in particular—all the way through performances, seemingly uninterested in the work upon which he was about to deliver judgment. The panel seemed to many to be out of control, frequently busting the live show through its time slot, and causing DVR-users to have their recordings cut off before the end. This careless timing was manifested most controversially during what was the signature performance of last season, Adam Lambert’s rendition of Mad World, was forced out of Idol’s allotted hour and was missed by many viewers.

From Idol exile, Lythgoe said, with chagrin: “There's been so much talk on Idol about the judges, the judges; it's not about the judges. It's about the talent."

Last July, after Season 8 had ended, it became even more about the judges, with the much-heralded departure of Abdul. That led to the addition of Ellen DeGeneres to the judiciary bench—she was hired in September for the season that begins this week. And is surely a presence coming to the show with little interest in standing two steps behind Mr. Cranky.

In recent weeks, there have been signs that the Idol production had decided enough was enough with the judges’ circus, as anonymous snippets leaked out suggesting that their share of the spotlight would be scaled back this year in favor of those forgotten ones who were the original reason for the show’s success: the singers. Many Idol Kremlinologists took these leaks as indication that—after a solid year being kept on the hook with the “What Will Simon Do” game—the producers had made the decision that they were ready to move on if it came to that. (Ironically, bringing The X Factor to the U.S. at the possible expense of Idol does not represent a defeat of Fuller: He has part ownership of the show.)

On Cowell’s side, it is perhaps heartening to see someone in our society walk away from a mountain of cash as large as he is turning down. But with hundreds of millions of dollars already in his bank account, after spending a solid year staring at this Everest on the table, he seems to have decided that all the money in the world is not worth it if the name on the door is not yours and yours alone.

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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a recent memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost.