What the X Is This All About?

 Andrew MacPherson

Eleventh-hour hirings, a bitter exit, an angry lawsuit by an "Idol" frenemy. Even before the U.S. version of England's most successful TV show debuts, Simon Cowell has his cherished buzz. Now, the global reality kingpin seriously unloads on his detractors and reveals his plans to get 20 million viewers. Anything less? A "disappointment," he says

In looking back, Cowell readily admits that he's "not happy with the way it played out." At the same time, he adds, "I wouldn't be doing my job as a producer if I didn't do what was right for my shows. I stand by the decisions I've made, and I knew the implications when I did it publicly -- that I was going to get slaughtered, and I did."

Still, he says he'd hire Cole for another project "in a heartbeat -- you're not drowning puppies here. You're offering someone who's got millions of dollars more money and more work. And if people think that's cruel, then they can do that to me on a daily basis. I'll take it twice a day."

Coming from the man who earned $22,000 a minute while working on Idol, perhaps his perspective on salary is a little skewed. How else do you explain a $5 million record deal in this day and age? That's multiplatinum Lady Gaga money to be sure, but for an unproven act, even one who's been exposed to millions on a weekly basis, most industry pundits would simply call that crazy.

In truth, and Cowell has wavered on his own explanation, it's a recoupable recording contract (it would take years or sales in the millions of copies to make that advance back) and a 360 deal for the winner. In most cases, the artist will be signed to Sony's Epic Records, run by Reid since July, though other Sony labels such as Columbia and RCA remain options as well. "The whole of Sony is going to be behind it," says Columbia chairman Rob Stringer, who has sent his own A&R team to observe the boot camp process and points to recent X Factor U.K. successes like the group JLS (4 million albums sold) as the goal. (Sony Music CEO Doug Morris has also made several visits to the set.) "We could sign eight acts if they were great. … Obviously, we're all looking to stand apart from Idol, and I think that's one of the strongest differentiations -- musically." Worth noting: Of the 13 U.K. X Factor acts that were signed after the show, nearly half have been dropped, a similar track record to Idol's. "I'll be honest: It is a problem on all of these shows -- too many winners, not enough stars," says Cowell. "But I'd say my record far outweighs what anybody else has done."

Still, all the American Idol comparisons are inevitable, with Reid bearing the brunt of the most obvious physical parallels. "Yeah, I had those conversations where I'm the black guy with the bald head," he sighs. "I've heard all those comments: 'If they're gonna use Randy, why didn't they just get Randy?' " That's just how people think, but who cares? I love Randy. He's been doing this successfully for 11 years. Comparing me to him is certainly not an insult."

But even with the Fuller lawsuit, filed July 20 in Los Angeles Superior Court, hanging over both shows like a dark cloud and the back and forth promo jabs the shows have lobbed against each other, Cowell gives Fox credit for playing both sides tactfully. "They understand the shows are in competition with each other, and I think they like the idea that one has to do better than the other one. Idol had a gentle poke at me with the [season 10] promo -- 'Every voice deserves to be heard. It's a new era. We're all gonna love everybody.' And here I was thinking, 'Well, you didn't complain for nine years.' So it was a gentle twist, and now they get a gentle twist back. That's the reason we're with Fox in the first place -- because they've got a sense of humor." In fact, if any series intimidates Cowell, it's ABC's Dancing With the Stars. "That's the real threat," he says. "It's a great show that is only getting bigger."

To that end, Cowell, ever competitive, takes one last dig at Fuller, along with the last sip of his super-powered smoothie: "I managed to watch only two minutes of a show yesterday because it was just so hammy, so corny and so wrong," he says, referring to Fox's Fuller-produced So You Think You Can Dance. "If you don't have interest in contestants, you're dead. At the same time, you've got to have chemistry and be entertaining, but you also need to know what you're talking about."           


Got Talent: The most recent season of Britain's Got Talent was its most watched yet, with 20 million tuning in. America's Got Talent is consistently NBC's No. 1 summer show, pulling in 13 million viewers per week. Of course, that pales in comparison to China's Got Talent's July finale, which had a total audience of 575 million. The show airs in more than 40 countries.

The X Factor: In its 8th season in the U.K., the show has been the country's most watched program every year it's been on. Success carries over to music sales as well: More than 1.5 million tracks were downloaded from iTunes during the 2010 season, while reigning winner Matt Cardle moved 439,000 copies of his debut single in the first week out.

Syco: Cowell's music company (pronounced "psycho") is a joint venture with Sony and the label home to multiplatinum artists Il Divo, Westlife, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle, who have contributed to total sales of more than 200 million albums. Syco TV is Cowell's television production arm; it has a stake in all X Factor and Got Talent franchises.


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