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Can 'Idol' Survive Without Its X Factor, Simon Cowell?

Exit of Popular Judge Could Accelerate Slipping Ratings, Ad Revenue for Fox's Cash Cow

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- What would "American Idol" look like without Simon Cowell? If the singing competition's main judge makes his rumored departure after the 2010 season, it could mean an accelerated decline for a show that some believe may already be past its peak.

Simon Cowell's $50 million a year contract is 6% of 'Idol's' annual ad revenue in 2008.
Simon Cowell's $50 million a year contract is 6% of 'Idol's' annual ad revenue in 2008. Credit: Fox
The rumor mill kick-started a week ago when his brother Tony Cowell said in the Dec. 19 edition of his weekly podcast, "The Cowell Factor," that "a press statement is being prepared which will confirm what everybody expected: Simon will leave 'Idol' at the end of 2010 to concentrate on bringing the American version of 'X Factor' to U.S. TV in 2011."

The timing of that statement is apparently still in limbo, as Mr. Cowell's spokesperson had no comment about Mr. Cowell's contract, and spokespeople for Fox and "Idol" production company 19 Entertainment did not return requests for comment.

But the absence of the show's most quotable (and controversial) judge could threaten "Idol's" reign as the top-rated show of the last seven years. The show's eighth season finished with its lowest-rated spring series and finale ever among adults 18 to 49, the most important advertiser demo, a sign that its popularity (and live broadcast TV) is already on the wane.

"Other than the contestants, Simon is the one that most people tune in to watch," said Liam Weseloh, who analyzes the value of product placement in entertainment for research firm Front Row Analytics. "If he were to leave, I'm sure they could fill that role with someone else, but it wouldn't be the same."

Main draw
"Idol's" ad revenue slipped this year too, with total dollars for season eight declining to $858.59 million from a series-high $903.29 million for season seven in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Fewer ad dollars would make it harder for Fox to put up the reported $150 million Mr. Cowell was seeking for his own three-year contract renewal after 2010. By comparison, "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest already re-upped his own contract for $45 million, proof that Mr. Cowell, a co-creator, is still the show's main draw.

This January's upcoming Paula Abdul/Ellen DeGeneres judge swap-out has so far seen little fanfare. Ms. Abdul abruptly departed the show over Fox's reported refusal to grant her a $20 million three-year contract renewal.

Mr. Cowell's $50 million-a-year contract is 6% of the show's annual ad revenue in 2008. From 2004 to 2007, "Idol's" ad revenue leaped from $404.38 million to $870.35 million, according to TNS.

Mr. Cowell has had a similar golden touch on other shows he's been involved with, even when he's not on camera. Mr. Cowell is the executive producer for NBC's "America's Got Talent," but he cannot appear on that show due to contractual conflicts with Fox. The NBC show achieved series-high ratings this summer in its fourth season, while the sixth season finale of "The X Factor," on which Mr. Cowell also serves as executive producer, was watched by one-third of the U.K. population this fall. A spokesperson for NBC did not return requests for comment.

"The X Factor" has had 22 versions produced worldwide -- everywhere from Morocco to Iceland to upcoming seasons in Bulgaria and Finland -- making the U.S. arrival long overdue, if a bit redundant, given "Idol's" prolonged ratings dominance. Coupled with the success of "X Factor" in the U.K. and "America's Got Talent" in the U.S., Mr. Cowell is at least a $100 million global talent in terms of delivering TV ad value.

Hitmaker
But perhaps the most seismic example of the Simon Effect this year was his appearance on "Britain's Got Talent," which launched Susan Boyle into the pop-culture stratosphere, spawning the most-watched viral video of the year as well as what will likely become the 2009's highest-selling album, "I Dreamed a Dream."

Still, a testament to the enduring power of the "Idol" franchise could be seen in this year's upfront ad-sales market, where it garnered ad rates in the range of $360,000 to $490,000 for a 30-second spot, nearly closing the gap between the second-highest-priced show on TV, "Sunday Night Football," which fetched an average $339,700 this season.

A study conducted by MediaCurves.com, polling 1,007 Americans about their preferred replacement for Mr. Cowell, found "America's Got Talent" judge Piers Morgan to be the most popular seat-filler, followed by Sean "Diddy" Combs and producer Quincy Jones. Other celebs thrown into the ring included David Foster, Donny Osmond, Jay Leno and Jon Bon Jovi, suggesting fans are ready for another musician to sit at the judges table.

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