Cowell sets 'American Idol' exit

11:20 AM PST 01/11/2010 by Nellie Andreeva, James Hibberd

Judge to leave at end of season to launch 'X Factor' on Fox

This was a first at a Television Critics Assn. press tour: a network's biggest star was brought onstage to sign his contract.

It happened Monday during Fox's portion of the tour, when entertainment chairman Peter Rice said "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell will leave the reality juggernaut after this season to launch another reality singing competition on Fox, "The X Factor," in fall 2011.

To heighten the drama, Fox's executive panel was delayed by 20 minutes while the sides allegedly put the final touches on the deal backstage. And after Rice invited Cowell to join him and Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly onstage, he asked Cowell to sign the contract.

" 'The X Factor' starts right here," Cowell said.

Cowell, in the final year of his "Idol" contract, has been vocal about his intention to leave the series, which made him a star in the U.S., and launch an American version of "X Factor," which he owns.

Cowell said that Fox brass tried to find a way to have him do "X Factor," on which he serves as judge and executive producer, while continuing on "Idol." But with commitments to his U.K. shows "X Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent," on which he also serves as a judge, "when we looked at the practicality of it, I felt that was impossible," he said.

Fox's "X Factor," from "Idol" co-producer FremantleMedia and Simon's Syco, will be close in format to the British original. It will feature singers ages 14 and up split into groups and mentored by one of the show's four judges.

(As part of a 2005 settlement between "Idol" creator Simon Fuller and Cowell, Fuller's 19 Entertainment is believed to have a stake in "X Factor," including the U.S. version.)

There was talk that Cowell might reach out to axed "Idol" judge Paula Abdul, as well as Louis Walsh and Cheryl Cole from the British "X Factor," to join him on Fox.

Cowell said he will name the rest of the judges shortly and, when asked about Abdul's chances, said, "I adore Paula, and whatever happens, I will be working with her in some capacity because I miss her."

In the U.K., "X Factor" served as a replacement for Fuller's "Pop Idol." Fox brass and Simon went to great lengths Monday to express confidence that the similarly themed shows can co-exist with "American Idol" in the U.S.

"I wouldn't have put 'X Factor' on if I didn't think it could exist separately," Cowell said.

Fox has a deal for "Idol" through next season and is close to securing the show for what is believed to be three additional years. "Our expectation is that 'Idol' will run for many, many, many, many, many more seasons," Rice said.

But the departure of Cowell, "Idol's" biggest star, is bound to have a negative impact on the show's ratings.

"Simon is irreplaceable, but it is going to be incumbent upon us to make sure the show remains vital, entertaining and compelling," Rice said.

Reilly warned rival networks not to cork the champagne yet about facing a possibly weakened "Idol" in the spring.

"We're not losing Simon; we're potentially gaining another headache for them in the fall," he said, referring to "X Factor."

With "Idol," "X Factor" and "So You Think You Can Dance," which is returning to its summer berth after a trial fall run last year, Fox plans on a music-themed competition franchise year-round.

"I think we have an opportunity if all three of these work -- 'X Factor' in the fall, 'Idol' in the spring and 'Dance' in the summer -- we could be the most dominant network by a mile," Fox's alternative president Mike Darnell said.

Fox also addressed speculation that the network is interested in hiring NBC late-night host Conan O'Brien.

"We had some informal conversations with his people that were mostly commiserating about the situation," Reilly said. "There's not much more we can illuminate on this."

After the session, Reilly praised O'Brien's creative fit with the Fox brand and stressed that he doesn't think the NBC debacle has made the comedian "damaged goods." He said that in addition to the creative aspect, a potential decision to launch a late-night show on Fox will hinge on the economic analysis on the impact of such a move on the network's stations, which are doing OK airing off-network comedies in the 11 p.m. hour.

Reilly didn't unload on his former employers at NBC but said he "never bought the premise that (Jay Leno at 10 p.m.) was the killer app."

On the development front, Fox plans to order as many as eight dramas and 10 comedies. Reilly hopes to launch two scripted hours in the fall -- ideally a drama and two comedies -- and a couple midseason.

The network also might expand its Seth MacFarlane block to four shows. MacFarlane, who is behind "Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show" and "American Dad," is in talks with the network for a new animated series still in embryonic stages.

Fixing Friday -- a weak spot at the network, which is coming off a strong fall performance -- is a priority, Reilly said. It is second on the Fox brass' to-do list after beefing up the summer original slate, starting with Matt Nix's action comedy "Code 58," which will launch in June following May previews alongside "Idol."
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