Can 'American Idol' Survive Without Simon?

In the past week, it seems as though everyone in America has taken a whack at the piñata that is the National Broadcasting Company. Since NBC announced its plan to move the ratings-challenged variety experiment The Jay Leno Show out of prime time and scoot back Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show, the fashionable thing is to trash the network and its president, Jeff Zucker. Granted, Zucker could pen a best-selling management book called Inscrutable: How to Keep 'em Confused, and his network's lineup has wobbled for at least a decade. But he's getting a bad rap for the Jay-Conan fallout, and the proof of his unfair maligning is coming soon to Fox. [Newsweek is a content partner with MSNBC, a division of NBC Universal.]

Fox just announced that Simon Cowell, the acidic judge and breakout star of American Idol, will leave the show at the conclusion of this season to star in an American version of The X-Factor, another talent search format he created in Britain. The announcement rained "huh?" all over Idol fans on the cusp of the premiere of the ninth season. Will Idol be the same without Cowell? Who will replace him? Will the new show cannibalize the old one? Why would Fox agree to this? The last one I can answer now: for the same reasons NBC moved Leno to prime time.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, The Jay Leno Show wasn't a terrible idea. It was a good idea made under a set of terrible circumstances. O'Brien wanted the promotion he was promised, Leno refused to retire, and scripted dramas continued to cost more per episode than the GDP of some countries. It's like those choices the characters have to make in Saw movies: do I want to dig a key out of a dead body? No, but I should probably go ahead, because I also don't want this spring-loaded trap to rip my face off, so here we are. Leno's prime-time show saved production costs, reaped profit and kept two of the network's biggest stars relatively happy. It was a success for everyone except the local affiliates. Viewers were used to watching a drama at 10, the news at 11 and a variety show at 11:30, and moving Leno to prime time bumped the newscast out of the cushy position between two shows people wanted to watch, and the ratings suffered.

Fox is now essentially in the same awkward experimentation phase with Cowell and Idol. Clearly, Fox would prefer that the star of their (or anyone's) biggest show not quit, especially following Paula Abdul's exit. But all they have to offer Cowell is more money, which he apparently doesn't need or want. Like O'Brien, Cowell wanted a promotion. Fox, meanwhile, doesn't want to lose him, so they're giving him another show, and the risk of a total disaster is just as palpable as it was with Leno's show. Fox can't sustain both of these shows. A talent search show isn't like a police procedural. It requires a major time and energy investment from viewers, two or three hours a week, not to mention the extra hassle if you're voting for contestants. If The X Factor is a hit, it will come at the expense of Idol, which will see diminished returns year after year. But people hate change (see: Kara DioGuardi), and not all Idol fans will make the jump. The best-case scenario for Fox is a less-imposing juggernaut to replace the old one. But let's say The X Factor bombs, while Idol dips at the same time, as it always does. If Fox cancels Cowell's new show, they won't hesitate to try to woo him back to his old one. And let's say Cowell accepts, after a new judge has already joined Idol to replace him. You see where I'm going with all this? Fox could find itself in the same musical-chair situation as NBC, with too many stars and too few chairs.

Leno and O'Brien both have the right to be frustrated about the way the situation is being handled, but there's no delicate way, in a situation so inherently public, to handle big, easily bruised egos. (O'Brien announced Tuesday afternoon that he wouldn't continue to do The Tonight Show after Leno if it were moved to 12:05 a.m., saying that the move would "seriously damage" the show.) The Fox announcement only reaffirms what NBC was trying to show us with Leno in prime time: the television business isn't what it used to be. The network heads who succeed will be those who are brave enough to make decisions that sound awfully stupid in theory, in the hopes that just maybe they'll be redeemed in practice.