The popularity of Fox's (NWS) juggernaut "American Idol" has already started fading, and after the rancorous Simon Cowell leaves the show, insiders say the drop-off will grow steeper.
The show's ninth season finale aired Wednesday night with a showdown between singers Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze. But much of the spotlight was focused on Cowell's goodbye. The Brit has become a household name for making wannabe "Idol" stars face their fears with his arrogant, insulting and sometimes downright offensive remarks.
From the first show, Cowell has been as entertaining to watch as the performers, often saying what viewers might be thinking, but might be too timid to say themselves. That squirm-in-your-seat style of his has warmed in recent seasons, making him more of a centrist on the four-judge panel.
Simon Tells Oprah He's Bored
On Oprah Winfrey's couch last week, Cowell, who is also a co-creator of the program, admitted to getting a bit bored. "After a while, you start to go on automatic pilot," Cowell told Winfrey. "Too many times, I was sitting there [at the judges' table] bored. The audience deserves more than that ... and I can't hide when I'm bored."
But even a bored Cowell is better than no Cowell, says Rodney Ho, who has been blogging about the show since it first aired in 2002. "'Idol' has been in a negative downslide the last several seasons and Simon's departure is going to hasten it," says Ho, who writes for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "He is part of the DNA of what makes the show work, and without him it's just another talent show."
And, Ho points out, plenty of other talent shows have failed.
Viewers Slowly Tuning Out
During its first season finale, "Idol" logged 23 million viewers. It peaked the next year with 38 million. But by last year's finale, the number of viewers had dropped to 28 million. The show also recently lost the top-viewership spot to CBS's "Dancing with the Stars."
Viewers and industry insiders have been speculating wildly about replacements for Cowell, including Howard Stern, Jaime Foxx, Elton John and Harry Connick Jr. One rumor even mentioned Madonna. Ellen DeGeneres joined the show this season, taking over for departed Paula Abdul.
Forbes listed Cowell as prime time's top-earning man, estimating that he took home roughly $75 million last year. "Simon Cowell is more than just the meanest man in prime-time television, he's also the best paid," according to the Forbes article.
What's On Next?
Ho and Katherine Meizel, an American "Idol" blogger for Slate and author of a soon-to-be-published book titled Idolized, agree that Cowell can't -- and shouldn't be -- replaced.
The show has had numerous changes over the years, but nothing as dramatic as the departure of Cowell, Meizel says. "Simon is not just a judge, he is a co-creator, and we just won't miss him as a judge, but also his behind-the-scenes creativity," Meizel says, adding that the loss means the show will be unlikely continue past next year.
But not to worry: Cowell's lasting legacy on television will be felt for years to come, says Meizel, who is also an instructor at Bowling Green University. The "Idol" franchise is viewed around the world, and the show's trend-setting interactive approach to allow viewers to participate in the television program by voting has become the norm for a host of clone programs.
And for those who need their Cowell fix, they can tune into his new British import, "The X Factor," starting in the fall of 2011.
Life After Simon: What's 'American Idol' Without Its Cranky Judge?