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Can ‘Idol’ hit right notes without Simon Cowell?

Caustic judge Simon Cowell can't really be replaced, but the powerhouse musical show may be able to rise above his departure and continue to pull in ratings. By Bill Brioux
/ Source: contributor

Without its Darth Vader, will TV’s Death Star lose its sting?

The recent announcement that Simon Cowell is leaving “American Idol” at the end of this season could make NBC’s ill-fated Leno at 10 experiment seem like a breezy little coin toss. Forced to act to keep Cowell, Fox acquiesced to his demand to step off the “Idol” express after this season in order to launch his popular UK pet project “The X Factor” (coming to Fox in the fall of 2011).

But did Fox just take the engine out of “Idol” in order to jump-start a series that may never achieve "Idol's" level of popularity? Losing Paula Abdul was one thing, but will millions of viewers ditch the hit show once the man they love to hate is gone from the series?

“Simon is the villain, you can’t replace him,” says Mediaweek’s “Programming Insider,” Marc Berman. “He’s the glue that keeps the show together.”

Cowell himself tried to allay fears at the recent TV critics press tour. His leaving “Idol,” he suggested, is like a star player leaving a football team. When the player retires, says Cowell, “the football team will continue to be successful.” He sees no reason why the show could not last 10 or 20 years, saying “I’m confident that it will continue to be the No. 1 show, and everyone’s committed to keeping it that way.”

As for Fox, they’ve signed on for at least three more seasons of “Idol.”

“Simon is irreplaceable,” Fox chairman Peter Rice said. “But it’s going to be incumbent upon us to make sure the show remains vital and entertaining and compelling, and it’s a show that has launched superstars.”

‘Idols’ can still sell albumsThe show’s ability to do that was called into question recently when Kris Allen tallied the lowest first week sales ever for an “Idol” winner. Not so fast, said Entertainment Weekly writer Michael Slezak, who points out that runner-up Adam Lambert’s CD was a smash, selling close to 300,000 units its first week.

“Look at the actual top of the charts at who’s selling,” says Slezak. “Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson … this show has produced a lot of viable hit makers.” Especially impressive, Slezak says, when you compare Idol’s track record to the fate of some “Project Runway” or “America’s Top Model” winners.

Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are among the show's biggest successes, while William Hung and Sanjaya are among its less successful contestants.

A factor cited in the demise of “Canadian Idol” two seasons ago was a diminishing talent pool. That doesn’t seem to be a threat to “American Idol,” Slezak said.

“Arguably, the seasons seven and eight talent pools were as strong if not stronger than previous years,” he said, suggesting good casting has resulted in four or five strong “hidden gems” the past two seasons. “It was smart to make the show more about musicianship than just singing. I don’t think there’s a diminishing return factor.”

Keeping “Idol” on top — even without Cowell — is doable, as even Berman acknowledges. “Even if the ratings came down by 10% every year for the next ten years, it will still have a large audience," he said. "That’s how dominant a show it is.”

Slezak agrees. “Frankly, there’s not a network out there that wouldn’t kill to have Idol’s rating,” he said.

Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly says it would be premature for other network programmers to start “popping corks” at news of Cowell’s eventual departure. “We’re not losing Simon Cowell, we’re potentially gaining another big headache for (competitors) in the fall (with 'X-Factor'),” he said, pointing out “we did just win the fall without him.”

For now, news that Cowell is leaving has not dented the appeal of “Idol” one bit. The series returned with 30 million viewers and in its second week was up 33% compared to year-ago numbers.

The Fox publicity department points out that season eight had its largest ratings advantage over its nearest competition ever, beating ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” by 69 percent and pulling away from both “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House.”

If it stays No. 1 this season, which is likely, “Idol” will have been the top TV show for six consecutive seasons, breaking the five-in-a-row records of both “All In The Family” (1971-76) and “The Cosby Show” (1984-89).

Still, even those shows didn’t last forever. “Idol” peaked in 2006 and has slipped around 10 percent every year since then. With untested Ellen DeGeneres soon to take over Paul Abdul’s judging spot, could “Idol” finally be vulnerable?

Slezak thinks Abdul’s departure will only help the show. “Frankly, the ‘Idol’ formula to some degree probably got a little stale by Season 8,” he said. He hopes DeGeneres sticks to constructive criticisms as a judge and is not the punch line joke machine she was on “So You Think You Can Dance.” If DeGeneres can bring her A-game, “Simon’s ego will respond,” he said. “He’ll have to raise his game if Ellen turns out to be good."

If one show on TV has been "Idol"-proof it has been "NCIS." CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler is pleased with how “NCIS” has stacked up against the Fox hit in recent years. In its seventh season, “NCIS” drew 21 million viewers head-to-head against the ninth season "Idol" premiere. Still, Tassler has nothing but respect for Fox’s No. 1 series. “That show is a monster,” she says.

Nonetheless, CBS is so confident in “NCIS” they just aired the 150th episode — featuring guest star Robert Wagner —opposite the premiere of “Idol.” “NCIS” executive producer Shane Brennan says making great episodes all year long is key to holding onto viewers once “Idol” kicks in. “Viewers get invested in the characters and they need their ‘NCIS’ fix,” he says.

Only ‘Idol’ can stop ‘Idol’Another potential “Idol” slayer — for two weeks at least — is NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympic Games. NBC entertainment president Jeff Gaspin—undeniably distracted with problems of his own of late — thinks the Games could steal a night or two. “I think it depends on which event goes which night and which goes head to head,” he says. The two big draws will clash four times in February, with male and female figure skating events scheduled over consecutive Tuesdays. If U.S. skaters are in the medal hunt, Gaspin expects NBC to do well on those nights.

Helping NBC’s chances is the fact that these Games will air live from Vancouver. “I do think we’ll do much better against ‘Idol’ those four nights then we did from the last Olympics in Turino, Italy, because we’re live,” says Olympics executive producer Dick Ebersol. “Will we beat them? I don’t know. They are the No. 1 show on television.”

Berman thinks there is a chance you could have “Idol,” the Olympics and “NCIS” all top 20 million viewers on the same night. “It’s only going to magnify the force of network television,” he says.

The only show that might stop “Idol” is “Idol” itself. Higher licensing fees to FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, as well as mounting music licensing fees, have eaten into Fox’s take. Fat new contracts for Cowell, Seacrest (a reported three-year, $45 million deal) and judge Randy Jackson are also hitting the show’s bottom line.

Still, even in a recession, "American Idol" is an enormous cash cow for Fox, commanding the second-highest ad rates on television (behind only The Super Bowl). The twice-a-week series raked in almost $850 million in total revenue last season according to TNS Media Intelligence.

A new judge, increased opposition — nothing seems to stop the powerhouse that is “Idol.”

As for who could replace Cowell next season, well, we’ll leave the last word, as always, to Cowell himself. “I’m going to suggest Ryan [Seacrest] does it,” he jokes, “because he can have another job then.”

Bill Brioux’s “Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television,” is due out this year from Praeger Press.