Simon Cowell told TV writers at the TCA press tour today that he plans to quit "American Idol" after this season. He's leaving, he says, to serve as judge and executive producer of the American version of "The X-Factor," which he is bringing to Fox next year. "The X-Factor" is different from "Idol" in that there is no upper age limit and groups are allowed to compete. It's the show that discovered Leona Lewis in 2006.
"It's a great gig," Cowell said about "Idol." "I've had the best eight or nine years doing this job. It's been fantastic." Surely he's understating? "Idol" has been the American show of the decade, and it's still on top despite some audience loss. Last season, the series averaged 26 million viewers. And that "fantastic" job has also brought Cowell some 50+ million a year, for what is virtually part-time work. According to an excellent piece by Richard Rushfield in the Daily Beast, Cowell's departure may be related to Cowell's complex, strained "marriage of convenience" with "Idol" creator Simon Fuller.
And so the new season of "Idol," which premieres tomorrow night with Boston auditions, will now have three distinctions: No Paula Abdul, the debut of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge (next month), and Cowell's swan song.
A few notes from inside the room.
The Fox executive session with Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice was delayed by about 20 minutes because, they said, they were finalizing the agreement with Cowell for "The X Factor" just an hour before. When they brought him out to meet the press Rice and Reilly actually had him sign the agreement on the podium in order to, Rice said, "bring a little drama to it."
Cowell was relaxed and funny. He plopped into his seat and went, "Right. What do you want to talk about?"
He said doing both shows was discussed but "when we looked at the practicalities of that, it just was impossible. I've made a commitment to stay on the show in the U.K. and I didn't think it was right also for me to do two shows in America. I can barely get away with doing one season on 'American Idol.' Two I think I would've been sent up country."
On why now: "I said a couple of years ago at the end of this contract period I was going to leave the show. Everyone thought I was negotiating. I was offered a lot of money to stay on but that wasn’t the reason behind it. I felt like doing something different. I like the challenge. I want to leave ‘Idol’ this year bigger and better than ever before, I genuinely do."
On one poll that says up to 60 percent of "Idol" viewers claim they would stop watching "Idol" if he left: "I think you'll find it's slightly higher than that."
On whether "Idol" can work without him: "In my opinion, and I genuinely believe this, I think it's like having good player and a good football team the two have to work together. But when the player retires the football team will continue to be successful."
On other distinctions between "Idol" and "X Factor": In addition to no upper age limit and the acceptance of groups, "X Factor" auditions are live in front of an audience to backing tracks and each judge takes a group of contestants under their wing and mentors them in everything from styling and choreography to song choice. "So essentially the judge is judged as well as the singer."
On former "Idol" judge Paula Abdul as a potential "X Factor" judge: "I adore Paula. Whatever happens I will be working with her in some capacity because I miss her. Like I said you're just going to have to watch this space."
With that Cowell departed to get to the Hollywood rounds of "Idol."
As for scheduling, "The X Factor" will launch in the fall of 2011, "Idol" will continue to air winter/spring, and "So You Think You Can Dance" will air in the summer. Cowell said Fox will make an announcement "fairly soon" as to who the judging panel will be and when contestant applications will start being accepted.