From Television Critics Association/Pasadena
Yesterday, Fox Network executives tried valiantly to reassure the press that juggernaut American Idol would survive the departure of the acerbic Simon Cowell.
The start of the Fox executive session was inexplicably delayed for more than twenty minutes. Finally, Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly and Simon Cowell put on an admirable front of solidarity.
Cowell is leaving the confines of American Idol to judge and executive produce The X Factor for American audiences. The X Factor is set to debut on Fox Network sometime in the Fall of 2011. Cowell even signed his new contract with Fox on stage. Well, that flourish was probably a blank piece of paper in his hand, but everyone played along with the joke anyway.
The press returned two or three times, or more, to the question of the probable impact of Cowell's departure on American Idol. Sometimes the panel felt more like So You Think You Can Dance as Rice, Reilly and Cowell sidestepped the questions.
Rice, especially, stayed on message and deflected attention from Cowell's departure by redirecting the conversation to the strength of the format.
Rice: it’s a show that has launched superstars. People love the format....Last year it was more than 70 percent above the No. 2 show. It’s a format that the country loves........I think bringing someone like Ellen in this year is why we did that. We think that it can have a wonderful sort of injection of energy into a format that’s beloved and works around the world..........We’re not going to rush into something. We’re not going to try to find a Simon clone who can do what he does because, you know, he’s one of a kind. But the format itself, people love.
Rice was vague about how Fox Network would actually manage the departure and sustain the aforementioned energy:
RICE: I think that we have to take our time on that. I think we have to make sure that the chemistry between the judges is as good as it can be. And I don’t think we’re going to rush to into that. And that’s why we’re coming forward today.
Television critics kept up the pressure, citing a recent poll suggesting 60% of American Idol viewers wouldn't watch if Cowell departed. And it was here, especially, where the panel shifted into So You Think You Can Dance.
RICE: We have some of our own research. I think it’s really that Simon had a desire to launch THE X FACTOR. And he — you know, that’s what he wanted to pursue. And we looked at how it could strengthen our schedule across the breadth of the year. We’re very excited about the idea of having THE X FACTOR and IDOL and DANCE and having them match up across the year. We did that this fall with DANCE, and it strengthened our schedule. So we think it can be a great source of strength for us. But, you know, Simon has come to the end of his contract and has great passion for this television show. And it’s an incredible television show. And AMERICAN IDOL is an incredible television show, and we have to make sure that it remains so.
Fox executives were cornered on this one. Even the worst case scenario (American Idol winds down as The X Factor ascends) is better than the potential apocalypse - a desperate, fourth-place NBC (where Cowell has a relationship via America's Got Talent) nabbing Cowell and The X Factor, and scheduling The X Factor against American Idol.
All in all, the eery impression left by the Fox executive session: the end is approaching for American Idol.