PASADENA, Calif.--Those sneaky Fox dudes did it again. Expectations were high heading into Monday's Fox executive session at press tour, what with rumours swirling that Conan O'Brien might bolt NBC for Fox and that Simon Cowell might walk away from TV's No. 1 show, American Idol, if Fox didn't bring his smash hit Brit series The X Factor to America.
Well, O'Brien is a little busy making the latest big decision of his life and a lot under contract. That left Cowell to be Fox's big get here at press tour, and the network and the American Idol judge didn't disappoint.
Fox chairman Peter Rice and entertainment president Kevin Reilly toyed with reporters in the packed main session room before bringing out surprise guest Cowell (dressed in--surprise--a black T-shirt). Savvy Rice actually had Cowell sign his contract on the podium right in front of reporters. The announcement: this is Cowell's last season on Idol. Fox will launch The X Factor in the fall of 2011.
Fox officials plan to continue to roll Idol every January, with other judges to be determined, X Factor in the fall and So You Think You Can Dance every summer.
Cowell, already the network's highest-paid entertainer, was said to be seeking a deal in the $30- to $45-million a year range.
The announcement keeps Cowell at Fox, but throws the continuing strength of TV's No. 1 show into question. Is Idol still the Death Star with its main star off the series? Cowell suggested it is like when a great player leaves a good football team. It is possible for the "football team to continue to be successful." Mediaweek's Programming Insider, Marc Berman, doesn't buy that,suggesting the show can survie the loss of Paula Abdul, but that "Idol is finished without Simon."
After the session, Reilly told me he doubts execs at CBS, ABC and NBC are popping corks today with Cowell off Idol. "Now they have a whole new headache to deal with in the fall," he says.
As for who should replace Cowell, Cowell himself says Seacrest. "He can be both host and a judge," says Cowell, always looking to get in the last word.