When a reporter suggested Monday that 60% of "American Idol" viewers show up just to see Simon Cowell, the man himself set the record straight.
"I think you'll find it was slightly higher than that," Cowell joked to reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.
The sharp-tongued British impresario made a surprise appearance at Fox's executive session Monday to confirm that this will be his last season on the smash singing competition before bringing his similarly themed "The X Factor" to the network in fall 2011. The network even supplied a bit of theater by having the 50-year-old Cowell -- who swept in fresh from tapings for "Idol's" Hollywood week -- supposedly sign the paperwork clinching the "X Factor" deal onstage.
Yet even discounting Cowell's self-infatuated shtick, it's likely that his exit from "Idol" will mark the end of an era not just for America's No. 1 series but for broadcast TV itself.
"As a character, Simon will be hard to replace," said Brent Poer, senior vice president and managing director of the West Coast offices for ad-buying firm MediaVest. "He's very critical, and the audience really trusts him."
For the last eight years, "Idol" has proved the great exception to otherwise confident predictions that broadcasting is in decline. Although its ratings have eroded steadily if slightly since 2006, "Idol" still amasses gigantic audiences by current standards, averaging nearly 27 million viewers for its Wednesday results shows last year, according to the Nielsen Co.
Skeptics who point to its weakening hold on young people cannot deny that "Idol" has nevertheless beaten back the gloom pervading the music industry and minted a line of successful new pop artists, including Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry.
Meanwhile, "Idol" has foiled most attempts by competitors to battle it, thereby upending the networks' prime-time race. Once an also-ran in the ratings, Fox has, thanks to "Idol," grabbed convincing victories for the last few seasons among young adults. When CBS chief Leslie Moonves dubbed Fox's signature show a "monster," the remark summed up the mixture of respect and frustration with which the program is viewed by rivals.
All of this could vanish if viewers decide a non-Simonized "Idol" isn't worth watching.
Alongside fellow judges Paula Abdul -- who last year announced she was leaving "Idol" after a contract dispute -- Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, Cowell was the "mean judge" who leveled direct, often withering appraisals at wide-eyed young contestants. His background as a music executive gave him a credibility matched by his ability to encapsulate what many viewers were often feeling. "Britain's Got Talent," a U.K. hit that Cowell created and helps judge, was the launching pad for Susan Boyle, who last year became an Internet sensation and recording star.
"Simon has the credentials with a proven track record in the music industry," Poer said. "He's a star-maker. Just look at Susan Boyle. He launches careers. He also happens to be telegenic. It's going to be hard to replace him with someone who has all those things going for them."
Fox officials say they understand what they're up against.
"He's completely irreplaceable, so you don't try to replace him," Mike Darnell, who oversees Fox's reality programming, said late Monday. The key, he added, was to give the judges' panel "a different vision than when he was on it."
At least publicly, executives feel "Idol" is strong enough to withstand even Cowell's departure. A critical test will come later this season, when Ellen DeGeneres will assume a spot at the judges' table.
"It's still holding a 70% lead over the next thing on television," Darnell said of the show. "Our job over the next year is to keep building it and reinforcing it. Ellen is a good start there."
Also unknown: what effect "X Factor" might have on "Idol." Fox executives have stressed the differences between the franchises, and indeed "X Factor" depends more on backstage melodrama and rivalries whereas "Idol" stresses the achievement of personal dreams. But the programs are similar enough to have formed the basis of a long-running dispute between Cowell and "Idol" creator Simon Fuller. At one point, Cowell had formally agreed not to bring "X Factor" to the U.S. as long as he appeared on "Idol."
Although "X Factor" has become a hit in Britain, Cowell admitted there are no guarantees for the U.S. import. And he has sometimes fizzled as a TV producer, such as with the CBS dating show "Cupid."
In an uncommon display of humility, Cowell himself said he believes "Idol" will continue to dominate TV, though whether his latest venture might temper that sentiment is hard to say.
"In my opinion, I think it's like having a good player in a good football team . . . when the player retires from the team it will continue to be successful," Cowell said. " 'Idol' is not my show, but it's very close to me. I genuinely believe this show can last for 10 or 20 years. I'm confident it will continue to be the No. 1, and everyone's committed to keeping it that way."