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Can 'American Idol' Survive Without Simon Cowell?

Danielle Turchiano Danielle Turchiano
February 3rd, 2010 11:00am EST
Can Idol Survive Without Simon CowellWhen the news started to break last month at the TCA's that Simon Cowell would be leaving American Idol at the end of this season to focus on his sister project, The X Factor, it felt like just a bad joke. But when he pulled out a pen and signed a contract in front of reporters, the showrunners, and the network, things suddenly weren't so funny at all. With Idol's recent casting shakeups (Paula Abdul heading out and Ellen Degeneres coming in but not until Hollywood week), the show's once-stellar ratings seemed less-than secure as it was. Now add this piece of news on top of it, and reality fans began to wonder if the show could make it without it's favored prickly British judge.

Without a full season of the "new" Idol under Fox' belt, it may be too early to really make judgments on how the other three judges can pick up Simon's slack. Some say that the contestants are the real reason people watch week after week, season after season, anyway. However, far before anyone knows which contestants made the cut, with the judges being the (at one time) only constant for the show, there is no doubt that they are the reason some viewers do keep coming back for the start of a new season. And out of all of the judges, Cowell has always been the one that has offered the most entertainment value.

Sure, Abdul was fun to laugh at whenever she'd clap like a seal and slur nonsensical compliments about hair or clothing or general attractiveness. Sure Randy Jackson is always good for notes on pitch or to name-drop his famous diva friends. And sure, Degeneres will be equally entertaining, most likely picking up where Abdul left off by dancing in her chair and putting contestants at ease with some lighthearted humor. But will she be able to match the quips toward Ryan Seacrest? Probably not; she, like too many in Hollywood, seem to put Seacrest up on a pedestal...for reasons other than the fact that without a boost he can't be seen by the cameras.

But Cowell is the one with the biggest persona, or exaggerated version of himself, and for that reason, he has always been the most interesting (though Adam Lambert, with his crazy guyliner and tight pants came a close second last season).

Without Cowell, Degeneres would be the obvious choice to take the head of the judges' table and otherwise lead the rest (although Neil Patrick Harris made a great case for himself on the January 27th audition round in which he was a guest judge). However, if the Idol producers decide to replace Cowell with yet another "new" fourth judge, there will certainly be a mutiny! So far speculation has mentioned names like Tommy Mottola and Perez Hilton as so-called viable candidates for the spot. There is very little that can be said about that other than a favorite description from Simon himself: "Ridiculous!"

American Idol

Image © Michael Becker / FOX


Cowell has always been the one judge with the best sense of humor about himself, the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the show, and the situations in which they are put. He knows what makes good television, and he delivers every time, be it with a sarcastic scoff, a melodramatic eye-roll, or a dismissive wave of his hand. He has created a character-- one that can't truly be called lovable but one who everyone loves to hate. He puts up with crazy montages and allows ear-piercingly bad singers to be inflicted upon him (and his audience!) in the early rounds, but he is brutally honest and serious when it comes to finding the next big star. He is hard to please, but because his standards are so high, he forces each and every contestant to bring his or her very best. And that not only makes for entertainment but also for amazing performances when the contestants "get it" and finally live up to the potential Cowell so desperately wants to see.

It still remains to be seen how the current (ninth) season of Idol airing on Fox will fare. Knowing it is Cowell's last, the numbers most certainly will be up, just so long-ago fans who may have left the series can catch one last glimpse of the man, the myth, the legend. However, such a spike in ratings now will only cause more problems next season when viewers tune out by the hundreds. Cowell may have left on his own, but it wouldn't be surprising to see fans take to rallying outside of Fox (the way fans rallied outside NBC-Universal for Conan last month) to bring Cowell back to the show that made him a star.

Danielle Turchiano
Story by Danielle Turchiano

Starpulse contributing writer