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

Simon Cowell is a man of many smoothies. On a July afternoon, seated in the sun-exposed corner of his poolside terrace high above the Sunset Strip (a 5,000-square-foot rental while his $8 million Beverly Hills pad is remodeled), the 51-year-old tanaholic and entertainment mogul requests from a staffer a spinach blend (made up of two large handfuls of fresh leaves, crushed ginger, lemon and a tablespoon of honey), a carrot concoction (containing exactly 25 green grapes and 10 ice cubes) and the all-powerful "Super Smoothie," which calls for, among other ingredients, the juice of eight lingonberries imported from Russia (average price: 135 rubles -- or $5 -- per kilo, but add another Benjamin for overnight shipping).

The X Factor creator and head judge, who's personally worth an estimated $254 million, can certainly afford such extravagances, along with the Rolls-Royce Phantom parked outside (MSRP: $450,000) and the full-time driver who spends 90 minutes a day shining it and etching X's in the carpeting with a handheld Dirt Devil.

Reality TV's most successful mogul, Cowell has made a career of playing and winning big with other people's money: ITV's in the U.K. (the network broadcasts blockbuster Cowell properties X Factor and Britain's Got Talent and was the home of the original Pop Idol), Fox's in the U.S. (the company paid more than $250 million to wrestle the rights to X Factor from NBC) and Sony Music's the world over (Cowell's Syco label has been partnered with the entertainment conglomerate since 2002 in a joint venture that distributes his music releases). His American Idol paycheck alone netted the judge a cool $35 million a year; artists signed to Syco Records have sold more than 200 million albums (20 million from Susan Boyle alone); and his Syco TV, which produces X Factor and Got Talent with FremantleMedia, is a veritable cash cow. Now, after nine years at the center of America's No. 1 primetime show, the man with a special touch for finding talent is about to undertake his most audacious all-or-nothing career move: the Sept. 21 launch of X Factor in the U.S. on Fox. An audience of less than 20 million would be a flat-out "disappointment," he says. Equally important: "Buzz. In England, you genuinely get the feeling the whole country is talking about the show. I hope for that."

At stake beyond the pressure to successfully launch a much-hyped show is another factor: bragging rights in the almost-gothic rivalry between former friends Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller, creator and executive producer of American Idol. Fuller is suing Fox and Fremantle for an executive producer credit on X Factor, stemming from a legal settlement the two Simons agreed to in 2004, which extended Cowell's stay at American Idol (he left the show in decline after season nine once contractual obligations finally allowed him escape) and allowed him to launch X Factor in the U.K. In turn, Fuller forfeited Pop Idol, the British predecessor to American Idol, to Cowell (the out-of-court settlement has not been made public, though details have emerged over the years). In the end, Cowell says he didn't see much personal or professional gain from the arrangement, other than the payday. "My attitude on Idol was, I didn't have anything," he elaborates. "I had a stupid three- or four-year license for the records, and that's not what I wanted or expected."

Apparently, neither did Fuller; as his lawsuit states: "Fox and Fremantle made hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the creative efforts of Fuller. Now, when it is time to finally perform on these unequivocal promises, Fox and Fremantle refuse to provide Fuller his executive producer credit for The X Factor and refuse to pay Fuller an executive producer fee 'commensurate with his duties and stature in the entertainment industry.' … Given that, the X Factor show would not be able to broadcast in the United States at all."

Says Cowell: "You can't give someone an executive producer's title if they didn't executive produce the show. It's like me saying I want to be executive producer on The Voice or Project Runway. … Genuinely, when it comes to this lawsuit, I haven't got a clue. It's not part of our settlement agreement, so I was as surprised as anyone." A source contends that Fox and Fremantle entered into a separate contract giving Fuller a stake in X Factor should the show make it to air in the U.S. (Fuller declined to comment for this story.)

Cowell calls his relationship with Fuller "complicated," but while he's careful to point out that he's not named in the suit, clearly Cowell is bothered. "It goes back to being a kid; if you shake hands with somebody, then it's a deal, simple as that," he says. "If someone breaks that trust, and they can't admit it to you, it's cowardly. I'd rather have a person look me in the eye and say, 'I'm going to screw you.' "

Read between the lines of X Factor's first promo, which mocks the warm and fuzzy nature of Idol's 10th season by dressing Cowell in pink cashmere and having Paula Abdul coo about a mediocre contestant's "spirit" (a la Jennifer Lopez), and you can cut that tension with a knife. "The truth is, I was a big part of Idol being a success," says Cowell. "I worked my nuts off. Then when you read catty comments that play down my role, that's disrespectful."

Add the fact that both shows are on Fox, and both are produced by Fremantle, and you have one kooky dysfunctional family. As is the Cowellian way, the pressure only motivates him more, which is a win-win for the network. "Simon is very good at this," Idol host and Cowell friend Ryan Seacrest tells THR. "And if X Factor brings in 24 million people, I'll be happy if we get 25," he laughs. "In all honesty, he wants to have that extra viewer and so do we, but both shows doing well is great for the music business and the people who are trying to make it and get their break."

While X Factor is a smash around the world -- generating some 100 million viewers with local versions in 26 countries (127 more will air the U.S. version) -- Cowell, who will serve as executive producer on the show, is entering a changed landscape from May 2010. Around this time last summer, Idol was in the throes of chaos, having undergone a public and embarrassing hunt for new judges after four years of continued ratings decline. Then its new lineup with Lopez and Steven Tyler proved to be a hit, averaging 23 million weekly viewers; a few months later, NBC launched The Voice -- also with big names Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green and Blake Shelton -- to an impressive 11.7 million viewers. So, clearly, America likes singing-competition shows. The question, then, is will they invest time in yet another one at the ratings levels Cowell wants? "Of course, we hope it will premiere well," says FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who oversees Idol and X Factor. "We all know what The Voice did, but to say 20 million or 25 or 30 … I haven't put a number to it. The fall has always been a challenge in the past."

And then there are the controversies: U.K. X Factor judge Cheryl Cole, who split from the franchise in May amid a storm of scandal and claims that she'd been axed from the U.S. version because of her thick Geordie accent (more on that later), and Cowell's tiff with Fuller. While publicly the spats have been a thorn in Cowell's side, the attention they've foisted on the show hasn't been entirely unwelcomed.

Advertisers, for their part, already are giving their seal of approval. The going rate for a 30-second spot on X Factor is in the stratospheric vicinity of $400,000 (Idol's hovers at about $475,000), and Pepsi has signed on as a corporate sponsor (in a deal estimated at $60 million) along with Sony Electronics and Chevrolet. And X Factor has music industry might behind it, too. In addition to a record $5 million Sony recording contract, the winner will be represented by Live Nation-owned, Irving Azoff-run Front Line Management. Why not a smaller prize like other shows? (The Voice's award, for example, has a value of $200,000.) "That's boring," snaps Cowell. "This is Hollywood."

But with a production budget of $3 million per episode, X Factor -- which has been the top-rated show in England for seven years, peaking with an audience of 21 million for its 2010 finale, or 65 percent of the country's telly-viewing audience -- is also one of the most expensive programs in primetime. And since it's neither a new concept nor a revolutionary one format-wise, what differentiates the contest from its Idol predecessor -- auditions with music in front of a live audience, judges who mentor and compete against each other, contestants as old as 89 and as young as 12, musical groups -- might not be immediately discernible to the casual viewer. Where it stands apart is in its top-notch production, which includes all manner of pyro, smoke and seemingly stroke-inducing lights that ups the drama and excitement quotient significantly. The L.A. auditions, held at USC's 10,000-capacity Galen Center, felt more like an arena rock concert -- as opposed to Idol's a cappella hotel meeting-room vibe -- even with the contestant who could be your grandmother.

Fox hopes familiarity and the snarky, biting commentary that is Cowell's trademark will give the network a second Idol-size smash. While Cowell is a proven TV entity long embraced by the American public -- albeit with some loving to hate him -- his X Factor hires, which include former Idol cohort Abdul, executive Antonio "L.A." Reid, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger and British host Steve Jones, don't share his luster. Granted, Cowell, Seacrest and Randy Jackson were virtual nobodies when Idol launched in 2002, but the stakes are higher now. With the market and public appetite fluctuating as wildly as a bad Whitney Houston impersonation, nothing is a sure thing.

Except, maybe loyalty. "It's the most important thing to me, and it goes both ways," Cowell explains, positioning a pack of Kool cigarettes for easy reach while a female server sets down the three glasses -- one green, one orange, one violet. "People who work for me, even here at my home, I see it as a job for life," he continues. The timid employee barely looks up, though his words have clearly registered. "I don't want negative people or jerks around. I always say, when someone's number comes up and you don't want to take that call, cut them out. You'd be amazed at how much better you feel on a daily basis."

It's hard to tell to whom Cowell is referring: possibly Fuller, perhaps Cole or the dozens of people seeking a spot on one of his shows. "It's actually gotten really irritating," he says. "Seriously successful rap producers and music business executives phone me weekly saying, 'I have to be on your show.' They just want to be famous."

In putting together the U.S. panel for X Factor, Cowell was careful to play it close to home, choosing four individuals with whom he has a history and a certain level of comfort. Still, none is an A-list star on the level of Idol's Lopez and Tyler. "That was partly deliberate," says Fremantle's Frot-Coutaz. "X Factor kind of zigs when everybody else zags. We were quite keen to go back to the roots of these shows, which is not necessarily to find people who are big superstars but the people who know how to do this."

First to sign on was Reid, whom Cowell met years ago at a Sony function ("I thought he had a lot of class and I liked the way he spoke," Cowell recalls). The exec began his career as a music maker (he and songwriting partner Babyface produced Abdul's smash 1988 debut Forever Your Girl), later discovered and signed Usher and Pink, then ran Universal Music's Island Def Jam from 2004 until March of this year. Reputed to spend exorbitantly -- look no further than his custom Tom Ford suits (starting price: $3,500) and the reported $5 million deal he offered to jailed rapper Shyne in 2010 -- he might not have had the most profitable run at the label, but it was certainly buzzworthy. During Reid's tenure, he resurrected the careers of Mariah Carey and Lopez and brought to market teen phenom Justin Bieber.

But with his contract winding down, Reid was keen on a TV gig and campaigned for Factor, even turning down an offer to join Idol as a judge. Says Cowell, "It was a good test for him." Reid's first task, according to Cowell? Telling his minder, " 'Get me a Rolls …' What he didn't know is I had the long wheel base, he has the short one."

Scherzinger, a veteran of reality shows as a contestant (her first TV appearance was on the short-lived CW show Popstars, which she won) and judge (on the CW's Pussycat Dolls Present, NBC's The Sing-Off and the U.K.'s X Factor, after which Cowell says she tested "through the roof"), is no stranger to major-label excess, either. Her solo album Her Name Is Nicole, which she recorded for the better part of two years and wrote, by her own estimates, more than 300 songs, is said to have cost Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records millions (a label exec says it's more like $700,000). It was never released in the U.S., though to be fair, the song "When I Grow Up," repurposed for the Dolls, became a bona fide Top 10 hit in 2008. (Scherzinger's U.S. debut, Killer Love, is due out in November.) While she initially was hired to co-host with the dashing Brit Jones, Cowell admits, "Nicole was always in the frame" as a backup judge. With Cole's exit, she stepped right in.

And there's Abdul, Cowell's longtime onscreen nemesis and behind-the-scenes confidante who, despite a less-than-stellar run with the CBS show Live to Dance (10 million viewers tuned in for episode one, but six weeks later, the audience was down to 4.7 million), is perhaps the safest bet as far as American audiences are concerned. "Paula was chosen because she's got good taste," says Cowell. "No one believes me, but I actually trust her judgment."

To wit: Abdul boasts that she's correctly predicted the Top 3 finalists for every season of Idol. But there's no love lost between the '80s pop star and her former Idol employers, who parted ways after salary negotiations broke down (sources say Abdul was hoping to reach the $10 million mark, while the network was in the $5 million range). "It was time for me to move on," she says. "A ton of people around me thought I was insane for leaving, saying, 'You'll never get another job.' I reminded them about my 20 years in this business. If you hang in there long enough, you become the genius again."

Fox and Fremantle agonized over the lineup, considering a slew of candidates that included Carey and Lopez for judges (Cowell pulled out when Lopez's Idol offer was made so as not to create an internal bidding war at Fox; Carey may mentor) and High School Musical's Corbin Bleu as a potential host. In fact, the team debated Jones' hiring for so long that he was notified only two days before taping started. Ditto for Abdul, whose exit negotiations from CBS dragged until the eleventh hour.

For their part, Scherzinger and Jones were paraded in front of Fox president of alternative programming Mike Darnell and members of his staff in what she describes as a "horrible and awkward" conference. "They were, like, 'Monkey, monkey, dance! Let's go!' " Scherzinger says, still annoyed. "They were very intense meetings," adds Jones. "Me and Nicole hit it off, but Mike Darnell is a tough cookie, and he was just firing questions that I tried my best to handle -- basically asking, 'Why should we hire you?' "

"Mike is not a confrontational person, he'll never shout, he just gently steers you," Cowell recalls, though it's inevitable that a crack is coming at the expense of the pint-sized Fox reality boss. "Because he's so small, you're not aware that you're being pushed into a corner so that he gets his way."

Darnell remembers it more like a good-natured tease. "That meeting was a lot of joking and laughing," he says, "which is what we do to try to see how the two of them would get along and how quick their wits are."

When it came to Cole's hiring, Cowell says Darnell was "100 percent" behind it, knowing that the handling of her exit has drawn some harsh criticism of both men -- Cowell, who was accused of abandoning the girl he'd championed, and Darnell, who was painted as an Anglophobe (his confidence in Factor's success also was questioned). "I was very supportive of having her stay," Darnell defends.

Abdul and Scherzinger didn't walk away unscathed, either. It was reported that Cole lacked chemistry with the former and that she didn't get along with the latter. "It was a total joke; we were friends," says Abdul. "I've only had lovely experiences with Cheryl. To this day, I don't know the whole story." As for that too-thick Geordie accent? Despite concerns by some on the production team that the show was "too British," Jones defends his fellow Briton, who hails from Newcastle upon Tyne. "Cheryl judged about 150 acts -- maybe twice she got asked what she was saying," he says. (A word that tripped up contestants: when Cole would call a corny performance "camp.")

Scherzinger, however, isn't denying that she wanted the job. "Yeah, I did because I had gotten the experience with the U.K. show, and I knew it was going to be a phenomenon," she says. "I loved Simon so much that I accepted the hosting job, even though I'd never been a host before, but I'm so flipping passionate about what I do that I wanted to get my hands on the contestants, give them advice and come from a place of understanding."

So what really went down with Cole? At the heart was her clear discomfort, says Cowell, who reveals that two weeks before the show started filming, she was expressing some hesitation about going through with the deal. In fact, via her representatives (Cole is co-managed by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am and his business partner Seth Friedman), Cole began to inquire about a return to the U.K. version, but she decided to stick it out and give America a shot. What happened next was the sort of communication breakdown that could kill a career, though Cowell had no such intention.

"I came to the conclusion that she may not be as comfortable here because I was seeing a different person," he says. "She was like Princess Diana when she would walk out in England, and I accepted the fact that people didn't know her here, but I think it did have an effect on her."

Cole's quiet demeanor on camera prompted a call from Cowell on Day 2 of filming. "I said: 'Cheryl, you've got to raise your game a bit. This is America, it's a much tougher market.' " Cole resolved to give it another try while at the same time, Cowell explored the idea of having her return to the U.K. show and had even secured a substantial pay raise (more than £2 million, according to a source); 24 hours later, they were negotiating the offer. "We had gotten to the point where she wanted my dressing room," Cowell continues. "It was decided: She would come back on Wednesday, and we wouldn't tell the media. Then it leaked and got unpleasant. She missed the deadline, which meant she'd lost the U.K. show."

Cowell says he urged Cole's management to reason with her, even putting the U.S. job back on the table, but a standoff ensued. "I asked will.i.am, 'How does she feel about it?' He said, 'It's none of your concern.' Then I got nervous. I called back to tell him: 'I don't care what you say; if she wants to come back, she's got the gig. But if I don't hear from her by Sunday, the deal's off.' I never heard from her. That was it. I think her silence was quite damning," 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.