By Scott Collins
L.A. Times via McClatchy Tribune-Herald
LOS ANGELES — Not so long ago, Simon Cowell was probably the most powerful man on American TV. His cranky, caustic judging had helped make “American Idol” an invincible No. 1 hit.
As a producer, he makes “America’s Got Talent” and similar shows that have long been top sellers around the world.
He ranked No. 17 on Forbes’ 2013 Celebrity 100 list, with estimated annual pay of $95 million, and famously predicted that his own “The X Factor” on Fox would hammer “Idol,” the singing contest he left in a storm of publicity in 2010.
And now? The hanging judge has fled the stage like a bad karaoke singer, leading many to wonder if the rapidly changing TV business has outrun even someone as savvy as Cowell.
Earlier this month Fox abruptly canceled “X Factor” after three troubled seasons and after a top executive at News Corp., which owns Fox, slapped the show for “disappointing” ratings.
“Sometimes we rest these shows,” Cowell wrote Thursday. “And that’s what we did in a crowded market” with the American version of “X Factor.” The 54-year-old Cowell — who was unavailable to comment further, his spokeswoman said — has returned to his native country to appear on the British version, which is itself flagging. Of course, hit shows don’t get “rested” after three seasons.
But there’s little question that, squaring off against not just “Idol” but also NBC’s “The Voice,” “X Factor” was getting lost in a crowd of singing competitions.
The problems ran much deeper, though. Cowell and Fox often seemed unsure what they wanted “X Factor” to be, and so the show ran through a dispiriting and confusing gantlet of changes in pacing, procedures, production values, hosts and even judges.
A system that gave each judge a category of performers to mentor (young men and women, older singing acts) may have overcomplicated what was supposed to be a fairly simple premise.
Cowell raised eyebrows at the end of the first season when, in an extensive and seemingly whimsical fit of housekeeping, he fired judge Paula Abdul, a friend and former “Idol” colleague about whom he’d spoken warmly in the past (judge Nicole Scherzinger and host Steve Jones were also sacked).
Season 2 returned with an emphasis on big, brassy production values.
“It was overproduced,” said Scott Sternberg, a veteran reality TV producer who’s made shows with Abdul, William Shatner and Paula Zahn. “The director spent more time in getting in the wide shots with all the lighting and digital effects, but did not recognize (the importance of) being tight on the faces of these performers … ‘X Factor’ had very little heart.”
But finding the heart can be tough in a genre that has pulled audiences toward every possible emotional extreme and back again. Viewership for network reality series has been steadily drifting downward as audiences tire of the format.
And no major reality franchise has reinvigorated the format on broadcast in recent seasons.
“The reality genre is cooling for network TV,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “Singing competition shows had a certain charm at first, but audiences surely can see by now that many of these acts are just too forced or demonstrate no more talent than can be found in a local pub or at the county fair.”
Given the media landscape, Cowell did himself no favors by vowing to crush “Idol.”
“‘X Factor’ suffered from unrealistic expectations,” McCall said. “Simon overpromised and underperformed.”
The band One Direction — which Cowell helped discover on the British version of “X Factor” in 2010 — is now one of the top-selling pop acts in the world. His “X Factor” comedown, then, might yet prove to be a mere rest rather than a swan song.
As Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, put it: “I don’t necessarily think we’ve heard the last of Simon Cowell.”