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Simon Cowell’s Possible Departure From American Idol

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Jim is on vacation, but he sent in this breaking news post via iPhone from somewhere on Interstate 80.

According to a report attributed to Simon Cowell’s brother, Cowell is planning to leave American Idol at the end of 2010 when his current contract is up. (There are other conflicting reports, one claiming he might stay for another 3 years.) On the one hand, we always need to be cautious of all such not quite official announcements. On the other hand, last time out, the reports about Paula Abdul proved to be true. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are: what does it mean for American Idol and for Cowell? (There are conflicting reports, one claiming he might stay for another 3 years.)

For Idol, this would be a bad, though not necessarily fatal, blow. However much people hate (or love to hate) Cowell, he’s a major reason to watch, and more important, the public face of the show. Even if Idol has tried to tone down the show’s nastiness, the judge’s sneering and bickering with Ryan Seacrest and his co-hosts is the acid that cuts
the show’s sweetness. This helps bring in viewers who don’t necessarily care about pop competitions per se. You can’t replace that with Ellen’s star power, or by hiring some generic cranky Brit. And the show already has to deal with losing Paula Abdul. (Whatever you think of her judging, her unpredictability was another key to the show’s success.)

Idol would be wise to offer Cowell nearly anything he wants to stay. (Free car waxing by Ryan Seacrest? You got it!) Presumably they have, or will. If he leaves anyway, it is probably a recognition that Idol has passed its peak. (That or he really misses Paula.) That doesn’t mean it’s dead; it can probably limp along, maybe for years, with or without Cowell, as a profitable show even with shabby ratings compared with its colossus years. But its numbers and demographics have declined.

It may be Simon realizes this and wants to move on while the getting’s good. To what? Probably to another show, with or without him on camera, that he would own and keep a far bigger wad of cash from. (Presumably a US version of his UK show X Factor.) Any future Cowell show is unlikely to be as popular as Idol. He’s a smart enough
businessman to know that (though his ego may be too big to admit it). But it doesn’t need to be; the money is in ownership.

My guess is that if Cowell has decided he’s been on Idol long enough, no enticement is going to keep him. Only the love of attention might. The question is how much Simon loves having you love to hate him.

See pictures of American Idol’s past winners.