Power List: The New Reality
THR profiles the 50 most influential players in reality TV1. Simon Cowell
Principal, Syco Television
The most influential person in reality television isn't merely the most galvanizing performer on America's top-rated program. He's not just the highest-paid primetime TV personality and a successful producer in two countries. And he's certainly not, as he described himself during a moment of humility before a recent taping of "American Idol," just "a judge on a bloody talent show."
Cowell tops this list because only he knows the answer to the most tantalizing question in reality TV: What will Simon Cowell do next?
His contract is up after next season of "Idol," and Cowell, 49, is not shy about his willingness to leave.
"The idea that for the next five years, I'd be doing exactly what I've been doing for the past five years ... the thought is just too depressing," Cowell says in his trailer before walking over to the "Idol" stage at CBS Television City.
"I'd go nuts, bored out of my mind. You have to evolve, you have to change. I like the challenge of launching something new."
If there were any doubts about Cowell's role in the success of "Idol," they disappeared when he launched "The X Factor" three years ago in the U.K. That singing competition has supplanted "American Idol" predecessor "Pop Idol."
The success of "Factor" was worrisome enough for "American Idol" broadcaster Fox to forbid Cowell from launching the show in the U.S. as part of his current deal. But all that could change soon.
Asked if he would stay on "Idol" if the series ever slipped from No. 1, Cowell bursts out laughing.
"Absolutely not!" he says, looking horrified. "Being No. 1 is verging on an obsession with me."
Cowell's drive helped him rise from the mailroom at EMI Music (his father was an executive there) to a job in its music publishing division. He left to form a company with his EMI boss, then bounced around the music industry and eventually landed with BMG.
Since first appearing on "Pop Idol" in 2001, Cowell's productions have included "America's Got Talent," "American Inventor" and "Celebrity Duets," as well as the U.K.'s "Britain's Got Talent" (on which he appears).
He earns a reported $36 million a year to do "Idol," plus millions more for "Factor" and his side gig as a consultant to Sony BMG Music (several publications have placed his yearly income at more than $50 million).
On a recent taping day, Cowell arrives about two hours before showtime, parks his black Bentley convertible next to his trailer, sits for his makeup and a quick cigarette and fast-forwards through a tape of the show's rehearsal performances. A bodyguard waits patiently outside, ready to shuttle him onto the "Idol" stage.
Unlike many in the TV business, Cowell rejects the claim that "Idol" ratings erosion is inevitable.
"I don't accept the argument of fragmentation or declining numbers," he says. "The Super Bowl goes up every year."
"Factor" has grown its audience every year, and Cowell thinks America wants another music competition.
"In the U.K., there is more than one type of music show running throughout the year," he says. "And I think the same thing could happen here. It's something we've been thinking about ... I would definitely do it now.
"Maybe it'll be 'X Factor,' " he teases vaguely. "Maybe it'll be something new ..."
Click here for the rest of the list
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See how the rankings were decided on the next page
How the list was compiled
It's not how well they sing. Or how much weight they've lost. Or even whether they can eat a plateful of bark beetles. For The Hollywood Reporter's second annual list of the 50 most-powerful figures in reality TV, editors analyzed the influence each person has over the U.S. primetime unscripted television business.
1. The contribution each person makes to the success of his/her shows, either as a producer, on-air talent or an overseeing executive.
2. Number of shows on the air, the Nielsen ratings and impact of those shows on the TV business and popular culture.
3. Reputation for quality and influence within the unscripted business.
4. The "watercooler" factor. People whose force of personality and ability to create the dramatic moments that have defined the genre are given extra weight.
5. Talk shows, clip shows, live events, daytime game shows or traditional documentaries were not considered, nor were foreign or network executives whose primary responsibility is not the unscripted division.
-- Profiles reported and written by Nellie Andreeva, Matthew Belloni, Alex Ben Block, Eriq Gardner, James Hibberd, Todd Longwell and Ray Richmond