This post has been updated. See below for details.
Not so long ago, Simon Cowell was probably the most powerful man on American TV.
His cranky, caustic judging had helped make “American Idol” an invincible No. 1 hit. As a producer, he makes “America’s Got Talent” and similar shows that have long been top sellers around the world. He ranked No. 17 on Forbes’ 2013 Celebrity 100 list, with estimated annual pay of $95 million, and famously predicted that his own “The X Factor” on Fox would hammer “Idol,” the singing contest he left in a storm of publicity in 2010.
And now? The hanging judge has fled the stage like a bad karaoke singer, leading many to wonder if the rapidly changing TV business has outrun even someone as savvy as Cowell.
Earlier this month Fox abruptly canceled “X Factor” after three troubled seasons and after a top executive at 21st Century Fox, which owns the network, slapped the show for “disappointing” ratings. Likely to blunt the media impact, word of the show’s fate came late on a Friday afternoon just as the American broadcast of the Winter Olympics was getting underway. Cowell — who suddenly has no on-camera platform on a U.S. TV series for the first time in well over a decade — was reduced to explaining the “X Factor” bomb to his 9.4 million Twitter followers.
“Sometimes we rest these shows,” Cowell wrote Thursday. “And that’s what we did in a crowded market” with the American version of “X Factor.”
The 54-year-old Cowell — who was unavailable to comment further, his spokeswoman said — has returned to his native country to appear on the original British version, which is itself flagging.
Of course, hit shows don’t get “rested” after three seasons (“Idol” — whose executive producer told reporters Friday that Cowell won’t be coming back to that show — is in its 13th). But there’s little question that, squaring off against not just “Idol” but also NBC’s “The Voice,” “X Factor” was getting lost in a crowd of singing competitions.
The problems ran much deeper, though. Cowell and Fox often seemed unsure what they wanted “X Factor” to be, and so the show ran through a dispiriting and confusing gantlet of changes in pacing, procedures, production values, hosts and even judges. A system that gave each judge a category of performers to mentor (young men and women, older singing acts) may have overcomplicated what was supposed to be a fairly simple premise.
Cowell raised eyebrows at the end of the first season when, in an extensive and seemingly whimsical fit of housekeeping, he fired judge Paula Abdul, a friend and former “Idol” colleague about whom he’d spoken warmly in the past (judge Nicole Scherzinger and host Steve Jones were also sacked). Season 2 returned with an emphasis on big, brassy production values.
“It was overproduced,” said Scott Sternberg, a veteran reality TV producer who’s made shows with Abdul, William Shatner and Paula Zahn. “The director spent more time in getting in the wide shots with all the lighting and digital effects, but did not recognize [the importance of] being tight on the faces of these performers ... ‘X Factor’ had very little heart.”
But finding the heart can be tough in a genre that has pulled audiences toward every possible emotional extreme and back again. Viewership for network reality series has been steadily drifting downward as audiences tire of the format. ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and CBS’ “Survivor,” for example, have seen sharp audience declines in recent years. And no major reality franchise has reinvigorated the format on broadcast in recent seasons.
“The reality genre is cooling for network TV,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “Singing competition shows had a certain charm at first, but audiences surely can see by now that many of these acts are just too forced or demonstrate no more talent than can be found in a local pub or at the county fair.”
What’s more, McCall added, “there is a ton of reality TV on various cable channels now, and the audience for reality programs is now splintered in many directions away from the big broadcast networks.”
Given the media landscape, Cowell did himself no favors by vowing to crush “Idol.” “'X Factor’ suffered from unrealistic expectations,” McCall said. “Simon overpromised and underperformed.”
But virtually all observers agree that American fans shouldn’t worry that Cowell will completely disappear. Indeed, there have been rumors he might turn up this summer in an on-camera role at “America’s Got Talent,” although NBC has made no such announcement yet.
Through Syco Entertainment — his joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment — Cowell still oversees a global media empire that produces TV shows and pop music and is angling for a major push into feature films. The boy band One Direction — which Cowell helped discover on the British version of “X Factor” in 2010 — is now one of the top-selling pop acts in the world.
His “X Factor” comedown, then, might yet prove to be a mere rest rather than a swan song. As Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media in New York, put it: “I don’t necessarily think we’ve heard the last of Simon Cowell. He’s a successful media entrepreneur — and the U.S. is too big a market to walk away from.”
Update, 2:35 p.m., Saturday: An earlier version of this post misstated the parent company of the Fox network. It is now owned by 21st Century Fox, not News Corp. The executive who recently called “X Factor’s” ratings “disappointing” works for 21st Century Fox.