'American Idol' Creator Sues Fox For Millions in 'X Factor' Money (Exclusive)

UPDATE: TV's most-watched show has exploded into litigation.
XIX Entertainment

TV’s most-watched show exploded into litigation today as American Idol creator Simon Fuller sued Fox claiming he should be paid a rich fee for the upcoming Simon Cowell competition show The X Factor.

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According to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Fuller negotiated a hefty executive producer fee and credit on X Factor as part of a settlement of a 2004 copyright-infringement lawsuit against Cowell when X Factor launched in the U.K. Fox, which airs Idol and will debut X Factor in September, and Fremantle North America, which produces both shows, are now refusing to honor that deal, according to the suit.

"Fox and Fremantle made hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the creative efforts of Fuller," the suit states. "Now, when it is time to finally perform on these unequivocal promises, Fox and Fremantle refuse to provide Fuller his executive producer credit for Defendants' new television show, The X Factor, and refuse to pay Fuller an executive producer fee 'commesurate with his duties and stature in the entertainment industry.' Defendants refusal to honor their promises made to Fuller is particularly malicious given that but for Fuller's agreement, the X Factor show would not be able to broadcast in the United States at all."

Click here to read the legal document

Back when Cowell lauched X Factor, Fuller sued, claiming the show was a blatant rip-off of Idol, which had aired in the U.K. and U.S. for several seasons with Cowell as the lead judge. The rancor between the two Simons threatened to derail America’s No. 1 show, so Fox helped broker a 2005 settlement of the litigation that kept Cowell on American Idol for five seasons and gave him a bigger stake in the Idol franchise in exchange for keeping X Factor out of the U.S. until 2011. Fuller agreed to yank Pop Idol off the air in the U.K. (giving X Factor a big boost there), but he became entitled to a fee on X Factor and a credit on the show if it ever came to America.

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Cowell honored the arrangement and left Idol in 2010, when Fox and producer Fremantle announced that X Factor would launch in fall 2011 with Cowell as its producer and star, while Idol would be rebooted without the personality that had defined it.

The explosive lawsuit is the latest and most brazen move in a yearslong chess match over the billion-dollar Idol property. Fuller created the Idol format in 2001 in the U.K. and hired Cowell, then a friend and music industry executive, as a judge. When Idol came to the U.S., a three-way partnership was formed between Fuller’s 19 Entertainment, Fox (led by reality chief Mike Darnell) and Fremantle (whose top U.S.-based exec is Cecile Frot-Coutaz). But Cowell didn’t own the show.

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When Fuller sued Cowell in 2004 over X Factor, it reflected a relationship that had become strained even as the program dominated ratings around the world. “The battle between Fuller and Cowell that played out in the British courts -- this was the undercurrent of everything that went on from the beginning of Idol,” a show insider told author Richard Rushfield for his recent book American Idol: The Untold Story. The lawsuit is said to have helped make Cowell determined to someday bring X Factor to the U.S., and the feuding put Fox in the awkward position of trying to keep both powerful men happy.

Now Fox is in business with both Simons, and clearly one of them is unhappy. In the lawsuit, Fuller even takes a shot at the network's owner News Corp. and the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the company.

"Fox, and ultimately its parent company, News Corporation, have demonstrated a callous disregard for Fuller's rights which, given recent developments, reflects a corporate culture -- if not a pattern and practice -- of wrongful behavior," the complaint states.

Damages are not specified, but it's safe to say that given the parties involved and the value of the X Factor franchise, this is a multimillion-dollar claim.

We've reached out to Fox for comment and will update with a response.

UPDATE: Fox and Fremantle send us this comment: "Mr. Fuller has not been hired, nor performed any duties, on the U.S. version of The X Factor. His suit seeks payment and credit as an executive producer despite his neither having been approved by the required parties, nor hired, as such. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we expect to prevail."

2ND UPDATE: Fuller's attorneys have now responded to the Fox/Fremantle statement: "Fox’s position that Fuller’s claim lacks merit because the parties have not approved' him as executive producer is absurd. It is precisely because Fox was contractually obligated to approve Fuller as executive producer and has breached that obligation that the case was filed. Fox appears to be admitting early on that they have breached the agreement."

The suit comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Idol team. Having successfully rebooted the show with Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and a positive vibe after many believed the departure of “nasty” judge Cowell would kill it, Fox has shifted its attention this summer to promoting X Factor, which took an unsubtle dig at Idol’s touchy-feely judges in a promo that debuted during Fox’s coverage of baseball’s All-Star Game.

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Even as Idol was in production this spring, there were rumblings inside Hollywood that the Fuller team was unhappy because Fox and Fremantle were more interested in launching X Factor than in stewarding the Idol flagship.

Now that bitterness has become litigation.

The suit, filed by Dale Kinsella and David Swift of Santa Monica’s Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, seeks damages for causes of action including breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, promissory estoppel and declaratory relief.

Email: Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

Twitter: @THRMattBelloni