Simon’s Final Judgment

Nastiness has done him nicely – changing TV in the process

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, May 26, 2010  |  Updated 12:20 PM EDT
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Will Simon Cowell be smiling after leaving "American Idol?"

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Say whatever you like about the folks at Fox: they know how to promote – and cross-promote – their shows.

The season finale of "The Simpsons" served as a virtual commercial for Wednesday's season finale of "American Idol." And just like the current season of “Idol,” the episode focused on the judges – particularly on the one who is leaving.

“Don’t do what I did, don’t become the mean judge,” Simon Cowell tells Moe the bartender, whose latent talent for clever, snide remarks catapults him to an “American Idol” judging tryout. “There’s a cost. I’m lonely, Moe. No one dares to be my friend for fear I’ll say something nasty.”

Don’t let Cowell fool you: nasty has done him nicely.

Over the last nine seasons, singers have come and gone from "Idol," achieving various levels of success. But there's only been one consistent superstar throughout: Cowell, who is not known for singing, and certainly not for singing praises.

His "brand," as the marketing types are fond of putting it, is rudeness and sarcasm. But those unattractive, if entertaining, attributes go only so far. Cowell's remarkable staying power rests at least in part in that he's usually right, even if his judgments are all-too-often delivered with a cavalier cruelness.

With his departure following Wednesday's "Idol" finale, the show will enter a new phase of the flux that began when Paula Abdul, the sappy sop to Cowell's oozing meanness, left after Season 8.

But here’s a blunt truth: however you feel about Cowell, if you’re a longtime “Idol” fan, you’re probably going to miss him.
 
That's a tribute to a unique entertainer who began his U.S. TV career in danger of being instantly dismissed as a caricature – the rude, snotty Brit – and instead turned his persona into a durable, lucrative franchise.

Cowell also became an archetype that's an integral part of the explosion of talent and competition shows sparked by "Idol."

There are his fellow Brits, screaming chef Gordon Ramsay and Piers Morgan of "America's Got Talent." Even a strong, defined personality like Donald Trump channels aspects of Cowell in the "Apprentice" boardroom.

The Cowell influence also extends into non-reality fare: tart-tongued cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester of “Glee” owes a debt to her Fox colleague for a lot more than providing a strong lead-in.

So as he leaves "Idol" to bring another one of his talent shows, "X Factor," to American TV, it's clear Cowell has seared his mark onto popular culture. That's indisputable, whether you love to hate him or genuinely despise him as a purveyor of pretty, karaoke-crooning mannequins.

It's also clear that Cowell isn't leaving "Idol" on a high note. The show's ratings are down. Cowell has generated little chemistry with new judge Ellen DeGeneres – not that he's tried very hard.

The overall talent deficit this season, combined with the changing-of-the-judges drama, shifted the show's delicate balance from the singing to the sniping. Something has been off. Cowell conceded as much last week on “Oprah.”

"After a while, you start to go on automatic pilot," Cowell told Oprah 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."

Even when he’s bored, Cowell is rarely boring. Like Oprah, Ellen, Cher and Madonna, Cowell has reached the pantheon of entertainment figures whose first name says it all.

You could say the same for Moe, at least in Springfield where he sells broken dreams floating in the bottom of mugs of Duff beer.

Cowell, who makes a living breaking hearts and shattering dreams – while occasionally helping them come true – will leave "Idol" with a void difficult to fill.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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