Reporting from New York — — The way Simon Cowell has been acting since Sunday night, you'd think he won the Super Bowl. Before a massive audience of Packers and Steelers fans, Fox unveiled an epic ad for "The X Factor," its best hope for the next blockbuster singing competition, created by the former "American Idol" judge. The spot showed bits and pieces of Cowell's body coalescing into a whole. As the not-too-subtle caption put it, "He's back."
On Monday morning, Fox announced that "X Factor," scheduled to premiere this fall, will provide the winner with a $5-million record deal with Syco, a joint venture between Sony Music and Cowell. Later that day, Cowell was on the first of what will no doubt be many conference calls with journalists across the country and beyond, gushing about the "life-changing" prize, comparing the difference between "American Idol" and "X Factor" to the difference between "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Jersey Shore."
As for the current, Cowell-free season of "Idol," he claimed, "I haven't seen a full episode," continuing, "I think we're going to do something different. I'm excited. The stakes are high."
Indeed, there's a lot of pressure on Cowell. Fox is still recovering from a rough fall season, when it finished last among the major networks in total viewers. "Idol" is still holding strong in the ratings, but it's showing its age, with its most recent season premiere dipping 18% among the crucial 18-to-49 demographic. Meanwhile, "Dancing With the Stars" and "America's Got Talent" are closing in on the same audience, complete with their own insult-lobbing, foreign-accented judges — a role that Cowell once had cornered.
Now it's up to Cowell to revive the genre he helped succeed. With "X Factor," he's offering the largest guaranteed prize in television history. He's challenging judges to be more competitive with one another: Each will mentor his or her own "X Factor" hopefuls, and fight for that person's survival. And he's expanding the age range for contestants — 12 years old on the low end and no upper cap. "I think it makes the competition more exciting that you're going to find a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old genius performer who could be competing against a 45-year-old," he said.
If those preteens aren't brave enough to massacre their elders, they probably won't survive the auditions, which will be held live before 4,000 or 5,000 people in an arena. "It was supposed to be similar to them doing their first concert," Cowell explained. "It really helped show me who could handle the pressure."
Cowell claims that allowing the crowd to react in real time will help him avoid overlooking another big star. "There have been many, many times on these shows where I've hated somebody and practically had a mutiny going on behind me," he said. "I don't believe Susan Boyle would have gone through in the old-fashioned audition method."
Exactly which judges would be deliberating on the future Susan Boyles of America, he wouldn't say, though candidates as diverse as Elton John and Noel Gallagher has been rumored. (Cowell will announce the full panel in the next three or four weeks.) But when asked if former "Idol" judge Paula Abdul would be involved, he left the option open.
"I'm a massive fan of Paula," he said. "We've been in regular contact."
Cowell said he'd consider Brits and Americans alike, as long as they could recognize star quality when they saw it. "Over the years you've seen a different type of artist emerge," he explained, noting that a certain je ne sais quoi has become just as important as chops. "A good example of that is Lady Gaga. God only knows what we would have said to her if she'd walked into 'Idol' three years ago with a lobster on her head. I don't know. But she's got it."
Whether Cowell's still got it is hard to say, especially seven long months away from the premiere date. But at a time when the music industry's struggling, he's going to have to work harder to make another success like Carrie Underwood. During the conference call, one reporter asked him directly: After 10 years of "Idol," are there any undiscovered stars left out there, waiting patiently for reality TV to come find them?
"Well," Cowell quipped, "You've only got to find one."