The Wall Street Journal: The Judging of Simon Cowell

By AMY CHOZICK, July 15, 2011

'This better bloody work or I am in huge trouble,' the producer says as he prepares to launch the high-stakes 'The X Factor.' This time, the harshest critic sticks his own neck out.

Simon Cowell had a small request regarding his new show, "The X Factor." Concerned that the World Series would interfere with the program's roll-out, he asked network executives if they might reschedule the event.

"I asked them if they would change it by a couple of days," he admits. Executives at Fox Broadcasting, which will air both, said no.

Such grandiose suggestions are common for Mr. Cowell, whose role as the face of "American Idol" made it the No. 1 show on TV for seven seasons and transformed him into one of TV's highest-paid personalities, with a net worth of as much as $300 million.

Mr. Cowell's new show now pits him against the show he exited, which also airs on Fox. An opening salvo was fired last Tuesday with an elaborate promo that aired during baseball's All-Star game.

The spot ridiculed "Idol" and other upbeat reality shows, opening with "X Factor" judges warmly encouraging mediocre contestants as they file into a hotel ballroom with bad carpet. "I love your spirit," they keep saying blandly. As if to show how defanged he is in this format, Mr. Cowell is dressed in an uncharacteristic pink sweater. Then he awakens—it's been a nightmare—and the pyrotechnics of the real "X Factor" take over the screen amid cheering crowds.

"This is exactly what would've happened on 'Idol,' " Mr. Cowell said just before shooting the promo. "I'll get killed for saying this, but so many shows on TV all look the same. 'Voices need to be heard,' blah, blah, blah."

Mr. Cowell's vision is brash, campy and conflict-driven, featuring lavish, concert-style live auditions across the country. As usual, he will not sugarcoat his appraisals of contestants. Last month, in front of a live audience of more than 4,000 people, he told a group of 12-year-old girls that their voices sounded like cats being run over on the freeway.

Now, it is Mr. Cowell's turn to be judged. He didn't own "American Idol" and had only limited creative control. "The X Factor" is his baby, and it closely tracks his personality— equal parts charm, drive and unapologetic nastiness. A $5 million recording contract with Sony Music is the grand prize. Other major sponsors include Pepsi and Chevrolet, whose rivals (Coke and Ford) enjoy a similar relationship with "Idol."

The stakes are high for all concerned: The series, premiering on Wednesdays and Thursdays in September, is shaping up to be the most expensive reality show ever, at just under $3.5 million per episode, according to Mr. Cowell's reckoning. (Other estimates put the budget closer to $2.5 million.)

As a TV genre, competition reality shows are one of the last redoubts of truly mass-market television, able to sweep over all segments of the audience, fuel water-cooler chatter and make advertisers swoon as the medium did in the heyday of broadcast television.

Rival network executives say privately that Mr. Cowell doesn't have the same dominance over the genre he once had, and that "X Factor" could end up an expensive bust. ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" attracts almost as many viewers as "Idol." NBC's "The Voice" averaged 11.7 million viewers per episode, reviving that network's fortunes. NBC will bring back "The Sing-Off," which features a capella groups, this fall.

"American Idol" without Mr. Cowell attracted an average of 23 million viewers who watched new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, down from its peak of 31 million in 2006, but still the No. 1 show on TV.

Nor have all of Mr. Cowell's new efforts been successful. In 2006, "American Inventor," his reality show on ABC in which inventors competed for the chance to launch nutty ideas, lasted just two seasons. "Celebrity Duets," a sing-off show, aired for only one.

One afternoon last month, Mr. Cowell left his 10,000-square-foot suite—with a Steinway piano and rooftop pool—at the Setai South Beach Hotel, waved to a few paparazzi and stepped into his chauffeured Escalade. Mr. Cowell, 51 years old, sipped on his specially formulated antiaging smoothie, which he drinks daily, made with imported lingonberry, acerola berry, chokeberry and aronia juice flown in specially from exotic locations. After Miami, an aide would arrange for the fruit to arrive in Dallas, the location of the next "X Factor" audition.

"This [show] better bloody work or I am in huge trouble,'" Mr. Cowell said as he rode down Collins Avenue, blowing smoke from his Kool cigarettes out the open window.

His talent is critiquing other people's talents, a gift so universally known that he says a couple at an L.A. restaurant once offered to pay him $150,000 to come to their home and critique them while they had sex. (He declined.)

When "Idol" first premiered in 2002 as a summer reality show adapted from the British series "Pop Idol," some Fox executives didn't want Mr. Cowell. They argued that his abrasive style and snarky antics would turn off young girls, the show's target demographic, says Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment.

As ratings and advertising revenue grew, the network became increasingly dependent on Mr. Cowell. "Idol" was bringing in more than $430,000 for a 30-second ad, one of the highest rates on prime time, according to SQAD Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y., media-research firm. Equally important, it helped launch and promote new shows like "Glee" and "House."

In 2005, Fox agreed to pay Mr. Cowell just under $36 million a year with the promise that he would not launch "X Factor" in the U.S. for five years. Last year when that contract expired, Fox (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp.) was so worried "Idol" wouldn't survive without Mr. Cowell that it offered him $130 million to launch "X Factor" in the fall and remain on "Idol" in the spring. He turned the offer down. "I didn't want to be a professional judge, do that show, do this show," Mr. Cowell says.

Some 24 hours after word spread that Mr. Cowell turned the Fox offer down, then-NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker offered a deal that would pay Mr. Cowell $250 million to do "X Factor" and serve as a judge on "America's Got Talent" on that network, according to people involved in both sides of the deal. Fox then topped the NBC offer and agreed to let Mr. Cowell leave "Idol" and launch "X Factor."

Mr. Cowell's cheeky jabs started at age 4, when he told his mother, as she came downstairs dressed for a formal event, that she looked like a poodle.

The two are close: When he's in London, they regularly have lunch. "I've always said to Simon, 'The only constant love in your life other than your mother has been yourself,' " says CNN's Piers Morgan, a close friend who was on Mr. Cowell's "Britain's Got Talent" and judges "America's Got Talent," in its sixth season on NBC.

Mr. Cowell started in the mailroom at EMI Music, where his father was a prominent executive. He worked his way up, moving into music publishing and being involved with a few hit records. But in 1990 at age 30, he got into debt working for failing music ventures and had to move back in with his parents in a leafy estate just north of London. He then got a job with record company BMG, where he had a string of mass-market hits including albums from the Teletubbies, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and a World Wrestling Federation album that sold 1.5 million copies in 1993.

His current company, London- and L.A.-based Syco Entertainment (pronounced "psycho"), a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment, continues to produce music. His artists include the Irish boy band Westlife, pop quartet Il Divo and U.K. "X Factor" winners like Leona Lewis.

In 2001, British producer Simon Fuller, who managed the Spice Girls, created "Pop Idol" and asked Mr. Cowell if he wanted to be a judge. Uninterested in being a TV star, he said yes on the condition that he could sign the winners to his record label. The next year they brought the show to the U.S. as "American Idol" and Mr. Cowell, now a star, launched "The X Factor" in the U.K. Mr. Fuller sued him over copyright infringement in 2004 in an imbroglio the press called "Clash of the Simons." They later settled. In 2006 Mr. Cowell launched "America's Got Talent," in the U.S., featuring more than just singing. "Britain's Got Talent" came the next year and led to the Susan Boyle phenomenon in 2009.

On "X Factor" Paula Abdul will reunite with Mr. Cowell. Joining them as judges are music executive Antonio "L.A." Reid and Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger. At 5-foot-9, Mr. Cowell, dressed in his signature white V-neck T-shirt and jeans, likes to say that he never hires men who are taller or better-looking than he is, but he has made an exception for Steve Jones, the Welsh model he recruited to host "X Factor." (Mr. Jones is so unknown in the U.S. that in Miami a fan handed him her camera and asked him to snap a picture of her with Ms. Scherzinger.)

The live auditions and flamboyance of "X Factor" aren't the only things that make it different from "Idol." The new show allows anyone over the age of 12 to compete alone or in vocal groups; "Idol" hopefuls must be 15 to 28 years old and soloists. Each judge is assigned one of four groups—young female solo artists, young male soloists, older contestants and vocal groups. They coach their teams and fight to shape them into winners. Viewers vote and judges decide who goes home out of the bottom contestants, a setup designed to spark debates among judges fighting to keep their protégés.

The show is supposed to target younger viewers than "Idol," which now has an average age of 48.2, up from 31.7 in 2002, according to Nielsen Co.

The show also strives to be the stuff of tabloid fodder in a rougher, raunchier way than the more wholesome "Idol." In May, Mr. Cowell replaced British pop singer Cheryl Cole with Ms. Scherzinger, sparking gossip that the shake-up was just a marketing ploy. (Andrew Llinares, an executive producer, denies this.) But controversy is welcome. "On the British version one of the contestants ended up being a prostitute [the contestant has denied this]. We wouldn't shy away from that material," Fox's reality chief Mr. Darnell says.

Mr. Cowell first knew he'd bring "X Factor" to the U.S. in 2009. The U.K. show was still a huge success, but he was bored. He sat tiredly listening to singers file into a Glasgow hotel room, the kind of place where contestants still tried out. "I literally stood up and said, 'I can't do this anymore.' So we got back on a plane. I was in a filthy mood. I thought, this show is boring. I don't want to do it anymore." Executives at ITV, which broadcasts "X Factor" in the U.K., were used to Mr. Cowell's sporadic fits, calling them his "one-day wobbles."

"Then I got an idea," Mr. Cowell said. "I wanted to shoot the auditions in an arena, like concerts," he says.

Ten days later, Mr. Cowell walked out to 5,000 screaming fans at a packed London exhibition center for the first live "X Factor" audition. "That's when it crossed my mind that this show is absolutely coming to America," he says. In the U.K., for its 2010 finale, "The X Factor" drew 21 million viewers, with a 65% audience share.

In London last fall, Mr. Cowell sat down with executives from PepsiCo Inc. and talked them into signing on with a $60 million sponsorship. That includes judges sipping Pepsi products, Pepsi at each live audition and drink packages with interactive logos that will send "X Factor" updates to mobile devices. "X Factor" is "set up in a way that's not purely about the music industry or a talent competition. It's designed to be part of a broader cultural experience," says Frank Cooper, chief consumer engagement officer at PepsiCo.

Executives play down the idea of a rivalry between "X Factor" and "Idol." One will air in the fall, the other starts in January. "From a brand standpoint, 'X Factor' is a fast car. It's a Ferrari. 'Idol' is the Bentley," says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, chief executive of FremantleMedia North America, which produces both shows. Mr. Cowell owns both types of cars.

Mr. Reid, who during his career has signed Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Kanye West and Justin Bieber, among others, compares Mr. Cowell to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. His ability to identify what the masses want has to do with his own middlebrow tastes. "We won't see Ludacris on a show like this. We won't see Jay-Z on a show like this. We won't see Kanye West on a show like this," Mr. Reid says.

As Piers Morgan puts it: "He's not interested in books or art or any real culture. He goes home, puts on Earth, Wind & Fire, eats spaghetti bolognese and watches reality TV."

Years of sitting at a judging table determining a person's fate with a sharp-tongued critique has given Mr. Cowell a Messiah complex, Ms. Abdul says. At the Miami audition at the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Mr. Cowell asked a 32-year-old contestant why her singing career had never taken off. She replied that God didn't think it was her time, that the Lord wanted her to meet him. "I'm looking at her and over at Simon thinking, 'Well, meet God,' " Ms. Abdul says.

Just before a round of live auditions at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Mr. Cowell, in a private backstage room, sunk into a black leather chair surrounded by executives from Pepsi, Sony and Fox. Ms. Cole had just been fired, sparking backstage insecurity. It was the kind of moment that the scared, aspiring singers who go on stage and perform for him experience.

"It felt like there were 250 people in that room and every one of them was petrified. I thought to myself, 'This is either going to work or it's not, and there's nothing I can do about it,' " he says.

The wobble didn't last long. A few minutes later the crowd of nearly 5,000 was chanting "Simon!" He was back on the judging panel next to Ms. Abdul, and back in form. He asked a 58-year-old woman why she's divorced, then ordered a duo of 14-year-olds to get new haircuts. "I told them, 'Fire your parents,' " he said later.

The Wall Street Journal