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Simon Cowell: Fox exec talks 'American Idol' future without its acerbic judge

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Following the bombshell announcement that Simon Cowell will be leaving American Idol after the current ninth season, EW caught up with Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly to ask what the future of Idol will look like without its brutally honest judge, and what audiences can expect from Cowell’s new show, the British import The X Factor.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does Idol survive the loss of Simon?

KEVIN REILLY: I think Simon said it himself today: We are not going to replace him, but we are going to look for somebody that has a lot of credibility and charisma, because first and foremost, we need somebody who really knows what they’re doing. And I will tell you this: The level of talent that has expressed an interest in the show, starting with Ellen [DeGeneres], is pretty astounding. It’s almost like you can’t think big enough. So there’s going to be no shortage of choices. Very big acts in the music business, because this has become the music business.

Why will America embrace a second singing competition like The X Factor?

It has been established hit in the UK…. This is not just going to be a trial run here. In a weird way, as much as we’d hoped to have it on in the fall next year, this gives a chance for Idol to regroup, in whatever form it’s going to be next season, to reestablish itself…. I think we’ll be able to reestablish Idol and then come back and let X Factor launch the next fall, and…it’s going to be interesting. I think it will be exciting, because people are going to talk about Idol. Is it new? It’s different. How is it the same, how is it better?

And will America embrace Cowell in a new role?

Well, he’s going to be himself, so there’s no surprise there. There is a lot of precedent for a show that has worked in another market that they have worked out. The bottom line is this: the discovery of stars and people going from obscurity to stardom is an intoxicating thing. And the fact that it’s Idol and it’s the youth and these fresh faces that come from small towns in America and become stars—and now this other show that opens it up to bands and people of all ages where you can discover the next Susan Boyle… I think there can be too much of a good thing, but I feel like this is where we’re going to have to be smart about finding a level. I think we’re in the best hands we could be.

How long has this been in the works?

There’s been a rolling discussion for awhile now with a lot of moving parts. This has been many months in the working, of Simon wrestling with what we he wanted to do—would it be X Factor and Idol, would it only be X-Factor? There were a lot of business issues, a lot of personal issues, timing issues, logistics — can this physically be accommodated in one year? — and you saw the result.

When you signed Ellen, did you know that this move was likely?

No. We knew it was Simon’s last contractual year but Ellen was not signed as a replacement, or a first step. Ellen was really about Idol this season…. The Paula negotiation had played out in that way, so they were all real separate issues.

Will you be sticking with the four-judge format?

That will have to evolve.

Is the door completely closed for Simon to come back to Idol?

The door’s always open, from our end. Who knows? Obviously full time he is committed to leaving. If he decides to come back at any point in any way, shape, or form, you won’t have to twist our arm.

Would you like to see Paula reunite with Simon on The X Factor?

He’s going to have to get into that and figure out what he wants to do with that show.

How hard did you work to try to keep Simon on both shows?

That was all part of the discussions, but there were so many moving parts on this show, and ultimately it was really about what could physically be done.

Was the rise of Susan Boyle additional proof that there’s an appetite here for an all-ages competition?

The X Factor is an enormous hit in the UK. I think it’s exciting. It’s going to be an interesting job to make them their own identity. There could end up being this fun thing of people going, ‘I love X Factor,’ ‘No, I’m true to Idol’ ‘No, I’ve jumped ship,’ and I think it could be a little of, ‘Which is better this season?’ There could be some fun competition and hopefully it just leads to two really vital shows, so here we go.

Photo Credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images