‘American Idol’ Without Simon Cowell? It Could Happen

The New York Times reports that a lawsuit may sideline the talent judge.

If you think it’s odd that there hasn’t been much hype about January’s start date for the next edition of “American Idol,” you’re right.

And there’s a reason.

According to The New York Times, the popular talent contest is facing a major overhaul which could push it back a day to a Wednesday/Thursday schedule each week. But more radically, intense negotiations with judge Simon Cowell have not been completed, and for the first time in the show’s short history, it’s possible that the dis-happy star may not take his place next to Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.

The “delicate and hugely expensive renegotiation” talks with Cowell have dragged on and on, according to the Times, because, frankly, Cowell has other options. The snarky judge in the tight tops has a hugely successful talent show he created for British television called “The X-Factor” to fall back on if his “Idol” gig dries up. As of Sunday night, there was no confirmation on either the change in schedule or Cowell’s participation.

FOX network executives told the paper last week that they expected to come to a successful resolution on both issues as early as this week. But unless the answer comes on Monday (November 21), the negotiations could be sidetracked by an even bigger obstacle: a British court case that begins that same day, pitting Cowell against Simon Fuller, whose company 19 Entertainment was behind both “American Idol” and its British predecessor, “Pop Idol.”

Fuller has sued Cowell for copyright infringement, claiming that he stole the format for “The X-Factor” from “Idol,” a charge Cowell has denied.

Unless the rivals settle, FOX could be facing the loss of one of the most lucrative franchises on TV. The network is charging a record price for commercial time on an entertainment series this fall for the program, according to Times sources: $600,000-$700,000 for a 30-second commercial, which tops the $550,000 charged by ABC’s hit drama “Desperate Housewives.” And though the bump back one night is meant to boost FOX’s schedule by making a beachhead on Thursday, the most lucrative night of the TV week, the plan could backfire if Cowell is not involved.

Cowell signed a new deal in 2003 that locked him in for three more seasons of “Idol,” but he has the rights to sign the winner and runner-up on the show to his record label through Sony BMG for only the first two years of that contract. The winner of the upcoming edition is not required to sign with Cowell’s label, and an associate of the judge told the Times that he’s “not interested in making a star for another label.” Without the deal for the music rights, Cowell could have a strong incentive to bolt “Idol” and try to sell “The X-Factor” — the most popular show on British television this season — to another network.

The series are similar, with both beginning with auditions for the singers, but instead of head-to-head competition as on “Idol,” “The X-Factor” then breaks competitors into three categories (singers under 25, over 25 and groups) and it pits judges against each other as they each coach performers in one of the groupings (see “Simon Cowell Meets His Match: Sharon Osbourne” ).

FOX has reportedly offered Cowell — who is already one of the highest-paid people in television at around $8 million a year — a “multimillion-dollar fee” to keep “The X-Factor” off the air in the U.S. The agreement would give FOX the right to air “The X-Factor” in the future and would give Cowell the right to sign performers to his label. All of that may be a moot point, though, if Cowell’s trial begins and he is too wrapped up in testimony to participate in this season’s “American Idol” competition.

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