The Shrinking Simon Factor

With the mixed-bag first season of "The X Factor" coming to an end and Howard Stern getting into the talent judging business, Cowell risks becoming a smaller player in a game he helped create.

Simon Cowell is quick to praise – and even quicker to slam – with his assessments rarely falling anywhere in between.

As the first season of "The X Factor" comes to a close this week, the talent show arbiter is in the unusual position of being judged on a decidedly mixed bag.
Wednesday night's final performances and Thursday's crowning of a winner could help the season end on a high note. But that might not be enough for Cowell, who had predicted a huge success for “The X Factor”: With the resurgence of "American Idol," the emergence of "The Voice" and Howard Stern coming to "America's Got Talent," Simon Cowell is on the verge of becoming a second-tier player in the game he helped create.
Cowell, proving he can be tough on himself, conceded at a news conference Monday that he's made mistakes since his second Fox talent show's September debut.

“I learned that I’m not American – that was a big factor of where I got things right and where I got things wrong,” he said (quote via The Hollywood Reporter).

It was a telling comment from a Brit who helped "American Idol" become a U.S. phenomenon a decade ago, making him a star, even if his nasty act didn't shine in all eyes.

Cowell has been relatively restrained on "The X Factor," which has soared at times (particularly in the early auditions) but has failed to gel at others (the annoying deadlock-prone voting process). The show threatened to alienate its audience earlier this month with the classless ouster of 13-year-old Rachel Crow, whose tossing under the bus by Nicole Scherzinger showed the judge to be neither a pussycat nor a doll.

The best we can say about "The X Factor" is that it's solid – which also sums up the three finalists, Melanie Amaro, Josh Krajcik and Chris Rene (our money is on Amaro).

The show feels like a lesser placeholder for "Idol," which regained much of its lost luster in its first Cowell-less season. "Idol" returns Jan. 18, just a little over two weeks before the Season Two debut of NBC's "The Voice," the year’s surprise hit.

Both "Idol" and "The Voice" struck the right mix in terms of judge chemistry and exciting talent. Both played up the mentoring of the singers, bringing a new element to "Idol" and adding drama to "The Voice." Cowell's new show is built on the judges guiding the talent, but for reasons we can't pinpoint, it hasn't worked as well. While music producer L.A. Reid is a strong presence, watching Cowell occasionally bicker with Paula Abdul isn't as entertaining as it once was.

Cowell came to the American version of his U.K. hit knowing he'd face inevitable comparisons to his past success and other talent shows. The comparison he probably didn’t expect – and can't be relishing – is to Stern, who is set to join NBC's "America's Got Talent" this summer, threatening to outdo Cowell as the king of caustic.

The winner of "The X Factor" gets $5 million and a future filled with possibilities. But the season’s final judgment for Cowell could end with him as an increasingly diminished factor in the expanding TV talent show universe.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity 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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