If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's no wonder Simon Cowell has the ego he does. Since "American Idol" launched in 2002, dozens of copycats have emerged, including several this year.
Each has tried its own take on the same formula — some stick closer to the original than others — and each has failed to come close to reaching the success of "Idol," which one week into its sixth season continues to be the most-watched show in America.
Not the relaunched "Star Search," which at least had some pre-existing credibility. Not "Rock Star," although it has so far lasted two seasons. And certainly not "The One," which was canceled this summer after just two weeks.
Established shows like morning-staple "Today" have tried similar contests. So have various Web sites (NBC.com's "Star Tomorrow," the recently launched MusicNation.com). So has Broadway ("Grease: You're the One That I Want"). So have the producers of "Idol" ("Junior Idol," "Duets"). And none has made much of a mark, with the possible exception of "Nashville Star," which is now entering its fifth season.
So why do TV, Web and even award-show producers — the Grammys are hosting an "Idol"-like contest this year and the Emmys tried it with celebrities last year — keep trying?
Well, for one, it's the nature of the business.
Since the early days of television, copycats have been prevalent. It's estimated, for instance, that the 1950s western "Gunsmoke" spawned 30 imitators, including a few hits like "Bonanza." Primetime soap "Dallas" experienced the same thing, and more recently "Lost" has inspired a new genre of similar serial dramas. It's also important to remember that "Idol" itself is sort of an imitator, as the show existed before in Britain as "Pop Idol" before it was re-created in the States by the same production team.
So as long as "Idol" continues to shine, it's safe to assume others are going to keep after the same audience. But will anyone catch it?
"Idol" co-executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz doesn't think so.
" 'Idol' satisfies the people who watch it," she said. "So why would you watch something in a similar area? People don't have that much time these days, so they commit to certain shows at the start of the season. If I'm going to commit to '24,' that takes up my thriller/drama spot. If you commit to 'Idol' two nights a week from January to May, you're less likely to tune into something similar."
"People are already invested and spending time voting for 'American Idol,' " added season-three finalist Jon Peter Lewis. "People don't want to spend all week voting for TV shows."
And if a new show comes close to the success "Idol" has seen (like, say, "Dancing With the Stars"), the formula will have been tweaked greatly, Frot-Coutaz said.
" 'Rock Star' didn't work great," she noted. " 'The One,' which was one step closer, completely failed. 'Grease' did OK. The closer you get to the mother ship, the less likely you are for success."
"Idol" judge Randy Jackson advised producers to at least stay away from the show's formula. "Isn't it funny?" he said, pointing out how many Simon Cowell imitators there have been. "If I were doing a show, I definitely wouldn't have three judges and have an English guy. It just tells me that a lot of networks don't have a lot of originality."
" 'Idol' is the front-runner, and it's hard to come from behind and duplicate it," third-season finalist LaToya London added. "I mean, who wants a fake Gucci purse?"