Will Simon destroy ‘American Idol’?

It’s not just that he’s leaving the world’s No. 1 hit show. It’s where he’s going that’s the threat.

Will Simon destroy ‘American Idol’?

Simon Cowell may destroy American Idol by leaving it, but does that suit his plans? The ninth season of the show, which began last Tuesday, is Cowell’s last season hosting the world’s No. 1 hit. While Fox tries to replace him, he will concentrate on developing a U.S. version of his U.K. hit The X Factor, to premiere on Fox in the fall of 2011. That show is a multi-week competition in which unknowns audition for a panel of judges, including Cowell, and the audience’s favourite performer gets to make a recording. In other words, it’s basically Idol under a different name. It might seem risky for the network to give Cowell almost the same show. But if it succeeds, it could make him more successful than ever.

Idol has been durable so far: despite the departure of Paula Abdul, the first new episode of the season showed almost no ratings drop-off from last year. But observers think that Cowell is a different story. Audiences have come to associate the entire franchise with his nasty remarks, and episodes inevitably seem to revolve around him (like a much-hyped moment in the season premiere in which people told him to “shut up”). TV writer Ken Levine compared Idol without Cowell to the PGA tour without Tiger Woods, while Craig Ferguson told his late-night audience that Cowell “is the show.” After Cowell announced his departure, Idol creator Simon Fuller left the show to “start a new entertainment company,” as if acknowledging that his old property isn’t as valuable now.

And as if Cowell’s departure isn’t enough of a threat, The X Factor’s similar format could make Idol feel redundant. U.K. viewers already know how this works, since Pop Idol, the original Idol show, was cancelled years ago, while The X Factor is still running today. There are already signs that Cowell intends to make the new show even more like Idol: wrote that Cowell, who has publicly vowed to work with Paula Abdul again, had been talking to her about joining his new venture. If people see the two best Idol judges in the fall, the winter return of Idol might seem like a pale imitation of X Factor, rather than the other way around.

Of course, the network is hoping to wind up with two Idol-style franchises at different times of the year. But even if X Factor hurts Idol, it might be worthwhile from Cowell’s point of view. For one thing, Idol is not his creation; if he makes a success of X Factor, it will pay off more. And the new show will be his star vehicle more than Idol, where he has no real onscreen power: he can offer comments, but he can’t pick the winners or win votes. But in X Factor, he explained to the Television Critics’ association, “the judges are judged as well as the singer,” because it has a “mentoring” feature where each judge is trying to ensure the success of a group of contestants. Tom Ewing argued in New York magazine that X Factor appeals to Cowell because it “shifts power from voters to judges”; he will be part of the competition, and that will focus attention on him.

It could also be good for his career as a music producer. Idol has done a weak job of creating stars—with exceptions like country singer Carrie Underwood, Idol winners tend to fall into obscurity rather quickly. In the U.K., X Factor performers are so powerful that every Christmas, the No. 1 single is an X Factor tie-in. Last December, 500,000 people signed on to a Facebook page to protest the show’s dominance of the pop charts. X Factor may be a better star-making machine, in part because it chooses its would-be idols from a wider range of ages; Cowell told the TCA that contestants “can literally be 100.” With the rise of Susan Boyle—who has spun money for him since she appeared on his show Britain’s Got Talent—Cowell may be aware of the limitations of the Idol formula, where the winners are mostly young and bland.

For this to work, though, the show has to succeed in America. And there’s a cautionary tale about what happens when a star moves to an identical show on the same network: Jay Leno’s disastrous transition from The Tonight Show to The Jay Leno Show. If The X Factor doesn’t succeed, Cowell could wind up as another Leno, who damaged his old franchise while starting a new one that didn’t work. On the other hand, Leno also reminds us that if a star flops, his old show will still be there, waiting for him. Fox president Kevin Reilly even told Entertainment Weekly that if Cowell wants to come back to Idol, “the door’s always open.” His replacement might just have to watch his back.