THE Mogul Who Swallowed Pop Culture is perched in his office high above bustling Sunset Boulevard, scheming. His groundbreaking project is the behemoth that has come to rule not only television, but also much of the entertainment landscape.
But if you thought Simon Fuller, the British creator of “American Idol,” would be sitting back by now celebrating his success, think again.
“I’m hungry,” he says, and he’s not talking about his next meal.
Next item on his agenda: taking the unscripted talent show to, yes, even higher heights, this time with a songwriting competition that will be incorporated into the show and produce a song that will be sung by the next “American Idol.”
After that, he plans to revolutionize the entertainment arena further through his production company, 19 Entertainment, and other partnerships. He wants to start using unique strategies that, in his view, will change the way talent is developed and exposed.
Even by the lofty standards of the unassuming, soft-spoken Fuller, 46, who first came to prominence as the marketing and creative force behind the Spice Girls, it has been a heady year for him and his production company.
Fox’s “American Idol,” already a cultural phenomenon, has seen its domino effect begin to be felt in theater (“American Idol” alumni are now regularly appearing on Broadway), summer concerts (the 2006 “American Idols Live” tour is the most successful edition in the show’s history) and even politics (the “Idols” were invited last week to the White House to meet President Bush). The series finale scored a record 36.3 million viewers, and the show received eight Emmy nominations, the most for any unscripted series. Former “Idols” such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been transformed into bona-fide hit-makers. And Lifetime will soon air a movie based on “Idol” winner and single mom Fantasia Barrino.
Auditions for the sixth season start Tuesday -- this year, there’s one at the Rose Bowl -- and predictions are for yet another massive crowd of wannabes.
Then there’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” which Fuller co-created with 19 executive Nigel Lythgoe. It is the top-rated summer show among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, and Fox renewed the series for a third season weeks before the season finale, which airs Aug. 16. Tickets for a national tour of the top dancers from the show go on sale Saturday.
Nothing has dulled his infectious optimism -- not the plethora of “Idol” knockoffs (many of them, like ABC’s “The One,” almost instant failures), not the good-natured competition with friend and “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell’s summer hit, “America’s Got Talent,” not even the failure by Clarkson to include Fuller in her Grammy thank-yous.
FULLER is now looking toward the future, his days consumed by an arsenal of projects including TV, films and music. He is no longer knocking on studio and network doors -- those executives are now knocking on his door. Among his plans is a fashion channel. He has project deals with HBO and NBC. And, in partnership with CKX Investors, he has embarked on new creative endeavors.
“We want to define a new approach to entertainment,” Fuller said last month, sounding more like a neophyte bursting with ideas than a multimillionaire who counts singer Annie Lennox and soccer icon David Beckham among his clients and is on Bono’s call list.
He says he wants to develop blossoming artists who might meet obstacles financially, stylistically or otherwise in trying to break through mainstream standards. Just as “Idol” does with novice singers, the goal is to empower all kinds of performers and “push the boundaries.”
“What drives me is moving forward. That is what my brain is focused on,” he said. “What really excites me is fulfilling my vision. I now have the resources to do everything I want to do.”
But first things first. He’s ecstatic over a new “American Idol” twist that not only will add an intriguing element to the series competition, but also help solve a problem that has plagued the competition since its 2002 debut.
In previous years, professional producers and songwriters have been commissioned to write an original song for each of the two finalists. But uncertainty over who those finalists would be, as well as their respective singing styles, has meant less-than-perfect matches.
“It’s a thankless task,” Fuller said.
But Fuller has devised a way to jump over that hurdle this season by having producers institute a songwriting contest that will run parallel to the singing competition. Anyone can compete to write a tune that will be sung by the two finalists, broadening the choices for possible finale songs and, by the way, bringing in a whole new competition for fans to follow. Some of the top songs may also be performed in a Fox special by former “Idols” and finalists.
The strategy fits in with Fuller’s knack of taking deceptively simple ideas and turning them into valuable properties. “It’s the simplicity that makes it powerful,” he said.
As he talked, Fuller displayed none of the weariness that might be expected from someone who has just endured a punishing weekend jaunt. He had arrived in New York after a flight from London and gone straight to an “Idols Live” concert. The following day he flew to Boston to watch last year’s “Idol” champ, Underwood, perform in concert with Kenny Chesney. He traveled the next day to Los Angeles for the taping of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The talk of TV titans
DURING his travels, TV critics from around the country had their annual gathering in Pasadena to discuss the new fall TV season, and talk of “American Idol” popped up regularly as network and studio heads acknowledged its undeniable effect on prime time. Controversies that would have put a cloud over most TV shows (alleged feuds, rumors surrounding judge Paula Abdul, legal skirmishes between Fuller and Cowell) only fueled the “American Idol” fire.
Fuller admitted that even he is blown away by the show’s momentum: “It’s all the things you hope -- but dare not wish -- for,” he said.
He also is less than pleased with the “Idol” clones. “This year it’s just become a joke,” he said, referring to ABC’s “The One” and similar shows. “It started being flattering. Now it’s annoying.” He adds with a wry smile: “No one comes close to us.”
He perked up even more when explaining what sets “American Idol” apart from its imitators: “It’s a combination of several different elements. But it all really comes down to the voting. When the viewer votes, it matters. Someone who is just ordinary one day can become the next superstar. Just look at what Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken did, what Carrie is doing. It’s that empowering of America.”
‘The tidal wave’
MIKE DARNELL, executive vice president of alternative programming and specials for Fox, called Fuller “a genius” for coming up with a show that other networks call “the tsunami, the tidal wave. It just can’t be stopped.”
And Fuller is jubilant over the commercial prowess of Clarkson, the first “Idol” -- despite a mini-controversy involving the singer, whose “Breakaway” album is still producing hit singles after selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. When Clarkson won two Grammys in February for female pop vocal performance and pop vocal album, she thanked nearly everyone she had ever come in contact with -- with the notable exception of Fuller and “American Idol,” sparking suspicion that she was trying to distance herself from the series. She also hired new managers.
But Fuller said he never felt slighted by Clarkson. “That was her huge moment. I didn’t even notice that she didn’t mention me -- other people did. She wants to be recognized for her talents. And her win proved to me that America recognized her as a fantastic talent.”
And though Clarkson is no longer managed by Fuller, she is still under contract to 19 Entertainment, which was involved heavily with “Breakaway.” He still applauds her for seeking management “that she is happy with.”
Besides, Fuller has too many other projects to keep focusing on the “Idol” past.
“There’s not an hour of the day when I’m not thinking of things that I want to do,” he said. “And everything seems possible now.”