Executive Suite: Cecile Frot-Coutaz

 Roger Davies

Donning a charming Chanel suit and surrounded by press clippings, an Emmy and various American Idol accolades, FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz is the picture of calm confidence. Her company’s flagship show is holding its own in Season 10, pulling in 25 million viewers despite having been effectively written off by the media, industry colleagues and even viewers when its star judge Simon Cowell announced a defection to his own TV creation, The X Factor. And the production company’s 20 other properties are still going strong, including game show staples The Price Is Right, now in its 40th year (Fremantle acquired it in 1997) and Family Feud, along with America’s Got Talent, which drew impressive summer numbers of 13 million.

Today, the 44-year-old married mother of two, who’s been at Fremantle for 15 years and oversees 100 employees out of its Burbank offices, is still firmly entrenched in “the Simon Cowell business” as X Factor’s production partner. Indeed, it’s her nature to hedge bets while also taking her share of gambles. But even with her cheery disposition, the France native and graduate of Paris’ prestigious INSEAD business school has learned firsthand that chaos can creep up at any time. Witness last summer’s search for two new Idol judges, a stress test she’s repeating in casting the U.S. version of X Factor (premiering on Fox in September), which, so far, has announced only music executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid on its panel.

In typical talent-show fashion, there are more surprises on the way. Frot-Coutaz fills us in on some of the secrets to her enduring success in a dog-eat-dog industry.

What’s your criteria when considering producing or taking on a new show?

The overriding thing is that we’re a global company, so we’re not just looking to produce for the local market. We want shows that are format-able, transferable, promotable and fairly universal in appeal. That’s the business model: to make 30 versions of it. Familiarity is important, too. There was nothing that original about Idol … but it was a different way of presenting something that was familiar. And you have to be able to scale up, so if a show only works for two or three episodes, that’s also not a good thing. Then sometimes, the best ideas are the ones you stumble upon which come in through the back door.

How much credit do new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler deserve for returning Idol to its former glory?

At the end of the day, format, not the cast, is king. If you have a crap panel of judges, then your show’s not going to work. If you have an OK panel of judges and fantastic contestants, you’ll be in better shape than the other way around. But the judges are a really important part of the mix because they give you entertainment value, credibility and so on. God knows, we’ve now done this a few times, and sometimes we’ve gotten it right, but you learn more from getting it wrong. It’s really all about chemistry and likability. It doesn’t matter if there’s a Mr. Nasty; they just have to be honest and care.

How stressful was the search last summer?

It was a very tough few months. It felt like a losing exercise, as if you’re limiting the scale of a car crash. And everybody around you — the press, the competition, the other networks — is like, “Good luck!” Management is on your back every day, you go through lists, you throw out crazy ideas. … Finally, when we were taping in Milwaukee with the new judges, within two hours of Jennifer and Steven taking their seats, I got a text from [executive producer] Ken Warwick that said, “Best judging session ever.” At that point, I thought, “We’re going to be OK.” We had amazing talent; the kids were the best we’d had in years. And then this panel was getting on really well. You can’t ask for much more than that. … The show is much more emotional now. The judges are genuinely touched and moved. You can see that.

Former Fox chiefs have said there’s the full-time job of running the network and the full-time job of working on Idol. How much time do you spend on the show?

A lot. Right now, it’s probably taking about half of my time, but I’m also working on X Factor. Last summer, I’d estimate 85 percent of my time was the judge search. … I’m there making sure the performance is as good as it can possibly be and also dealing with sick contestants and the like. We can’t be burning them out, or we’re not going to make it to the end.

How can you ensure that Idol and X Factor don’t cannibalize each other’s audience?

Our job is to make sure the two shows are as distinct as possible. For example: We’re making sure there are two entirely different teams with no overlap in terms of individuals who are working on both shows. And from a format and tonal standpoint, they’re very different. In terms of casting the judges, again, we’re making sure the looks are different. And I can reveal that we’ll have two hosts on The X Factor.

With so many partners on these shows — Fox, 19 Entertainment, Simon Fuller’s XIX, EPs Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe — is there a magic formula to building a cohesive production team?

I wish there were. Ken and Nigel started as dancers and choreographers; they know music. They’ve directed, produced and grown through their acts. They’re in their 60s and have been in it for a really long time, so there’s leadership, passion and vision there. But it’s tough. With reality exploding 10 years ago, a lot of people got promoted very quickly, but they don’t always have the depth of experience that our team has.

Is it true that you came up with the first budget for Idol at an IHOP?

Yes, the one on Ventura Boulevard in Encino by the 405. And we got it completely wrong. It was so under-budgeted. Like, way off.

With Idol still pulling in 25 million viewers, what would quantify success for X Factor?

Got Talent does 12 or 13 million in the summer, Glee is deemed a success as a 4.0 rating, or about 12 million viewers. I would want X Factor to do at least a 5.0. Anything above a 6.0 would be ecstatic.

You’ve been described as a purveyor of schlock TV. Do you find that insulting?

I don’t have a problem with it. We don’t do highbrow documentaries for PBS; our mission is to provide what we call inspiring family entertainment: big shows that reach a lot of people. Some think Idol is corny — yeah, it probably is a little bit. But people like it.           

A CEO's DATEBOOK:

  • 6 a.m. Wake up
  • 6:30 a.m. Breakfast with family
  • 7:30 a.m. Work out with trainer at the gym
  • 9 a.m. FremantleMedia operating board meeting (video conference)
  • 10 a.m. The X Factor status meeting
  • 11 a.m. Phone call with Simon Cowell
  • 11:30 a.m. In-person interview and photo shoot with The Hollywood Reporter
  • 12:30 p.m. Interview with Rolling Stone (from car)
  • 1 p.m. Lunch with Fox reality chief Mike Darnell at Soho House
  • 3 p.m. American Idol contestants’ rehearsal onstage
  • 4 p.m. Idol production meeting
  • 5 p.m. Parent-teacher conference for 7-year-old daughter Amelie
  • 7 p.m. America’s Got Talent VTR at L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre
comments powered by Disqus