A puppet master extraordinaire, Simon Cowell removes himself as a judge from The X Factor but remains in control. Jasper Rees explains how he continues to capitalise on a tectonic shift in media
Earlier this summer, on a blustery afternoon, I attend for the first time what is becoming a British ritual. It happens in cities all over the country but on this occasion the scene is on the patch of prime real estate where the River Thames goes on a big U-bend in south-east London. Here, the white elephant formerly known as the Millennium Dome has been rechristened the O2 and has found a productive second life as an arena for rock shows.
Prince did a long season of shows here, playing to 15,000 a night for weeks on end. The venue was a cornerstone of the Spice Girls' comeback tour. Michael Jackson was set to play 50 nights at the O2 before he died. So the building is used to standing ovations, to unbridled hysteria and hero/heroine worship. The applause is usually reserved for musicians. Not this afternoon.
Today, live auditions are being held for The X Factor, the phenomenon that bestrides the cultural landscape of the United Kingdom. Inside the auditorium a judging panel comprising four personalities from the music business sits at a table with backs to the audience while up on stage a procession of pop hopefuls performs.
It all goes routinely enough. The singers are by turns dreadful, moderately able and, in one or two cases, impressive. The judges say their thing, the MC tries to whip up the audience of several thousand into a synthetic frenzy. There's something fettered about the atmosphere, though. Audiences have been this way once too often before. They know the grammar, they understand the rules, and behave as is expected of them rather than out of any kind of spontaneous instinct.
And then Simon Cowell wanders in from the wings. For the first time, the Dark Lord of the TV talent show is not to be a judge. This year he will pull the strings from behind. One can imagine it gets exceptionally boring on this treadmill of his own making, however good the money. (And the money is very good.)
We are very much in the preprandial phase of a long entertainment. This is not yet live television. But people are missing him dreadfully. Cowell is indivisible from The X Factor, which is overwhelmingly his baby, his brand. So when he saunters out into the lights for an impromptu chat with the judges, the entire room erupts in an instant display of fervour. It goes without saying that no British politician would be greeted with this level of enthusiasm, nor anyone from the world of sport, and maybe not anyone from entertainment.
Cowell is a manufacturer of pop princes and princesses. He crafts the careers of others like Dr Frankenstein in his laboratory. When you strip away all the flimflam and the gaudy flashing architecture of The X Factor, what we're witnessing, and have been for the past decade, is the lionisation of the guy in A&R.
UK television viewers in the millions have given over hearts and minds and maybe even their souls to a talent scout. In a country that no longer has a widespread commitment to religion, The X Factor is the closest the great British public gets to Sunday worship. They just do it on Saturdays instead, and Cowell would appear to be their messiah. He is a product of our times who has capitalised on the convergence of several cultural currents.
The talent show and its evil twin, reality TV, are both the product of a multi-channel environment. When television was deregulated, a zillion new channels sprouted, advertising and audiences fragmented and suddenly there wasn't enough money for what television had thus far always tried to do: pay the talent to make programmes. In the old days, the public wandered on screen only when invited to participate in game shows. But just over 10 years ago there was a sudden need for a new source of cheap labour to fill the hours. With satellite broadcasters taking some of the available pot of advertising money, suddenly Britain's two main commercial channels – ITV and Channel 4 – had to generate content on a shrinking income. So what did they do? They got the public to work for free.
So in the Noughties, television enfranchised nobodies to become somebodies in the enabling crucible of the gogglebox.
Well, as a wise man once said: "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." If it's true that you get the television you deserve, the decade has taught us that audiences want a Victorian freak show with digital add-ons. It even pays for the privilege by voting.
Helped by the concept of the internet blog and Facebook, everyone was newly encouraged to become a celebrity. The two most organised and lucrative examples of that were The X Factor and Big Brother, two different programmes linked by a common denominator: thirst for a modern kind of fame. Thanks to the cyclical and self-referential world of the talent show, people could compete to become celebrities and then, having achieved their aim, perpetuate their fame by being invited onto celebrity talent shows held on an ice rink or a dance floor, on a sport field or in the jungle.
It was Cowell's genius to channel this tectonic shift in the media landscape. Most of us first came across the name nearly 10 years ago when a programme called Pop Idol took up residence on ITV on Saturday evenings. The concept was unfamiliar: a group of a dozen or so singers was whittled down week by week by a voting public guided by a panel of industry experts. One of them was Cowell. Unlike the others, he had a stake in the procedure. Pop Idol was the brainchild of Cowell and another Simon, Simon Fuller, the man who gave you the Spice Girls (until they fired him). Fuller owned 19 Records, whose acts are licensed to S Records, which is itself a subsidiary of BMG-RCA. The two Simons took the idea for the show to ITV, which granted it 23 hours of airtime.
I happened to interview Cowell just as Pop Idol was coming to the boil. I found him less toweringly rude than the media construct "Simon Cowell". In fact, he was quite nice. So famous had he become in such a short space of time that the tabloids, strategically fed by Cowell's publicist, Max Clifford, were running more stories on his not very lurid private life than on the milksop contestants themselves.
The first winner was a young man named Will Young, who went on to have a durable pop career. The runner-up was an even younger man called Gareth Gates, who, as with many subsequent contestants, had a touching backstory - in his case to do with overcoming a stutter to sing like an angel. Both were taken on by Cowell, who was therefore the ultimate victor, a bit like the casino that always wins. Overnight, having been just one Svengali among many who made it their business to force balladeering boy bands up the charts, he became the linchpin of the entire UK record industry.
The X Factor began in 2004. As the undoubted star of Pop Idol, Cowell was able to set this one up without the involvement of Fuller, making him fully in charge. He and his people duly went into cahoots with the British media to feed off one another.
In each series, stories would abound about the contestants, but also the judges. Cowell carefully engineered rivalries between himself and his fellow panellists, who became mentors to various acts. His relationship with Sharon Osbourne, the wife of the semi-gaga, bat-biting metal god Ozzy, was combustible in the extreme; after four series she walked. In came the pop singer Cheryl Cole, herself the creation of a preceding talent contest, and also Kylie Minogue's less famous sister, Dannii.
Now the plot plays out roughly the same year after year, autumn after autumn. The early auditions are an exercise in panning for gold, but the entertainment in this part of the process also allows the audience to revel in and often laugh at the ghastliness of some "performers". Once the chaff has been chucked out, the rest head to "boot camp" for further sifting, whereafter the finalists embark on the weekly marathon of singing live on TV. Sometimes they find themselves on the same bill or even duetting with huge stars who have twigged that, since the demise of the UK chart show Top of the Pops, there is no bigger forum for generating record sales. Take That, with and without Robbie Williams, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez - they've all been on.
Eventually, towards Christmas, a tearful winner is anointed. Often, a year later, they have dropped entirely from view. The only winner of The X Factor to graduate to a full-blown career is Leona Lewis, who won in 2006 and went on to bag three Grammys, and perform at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
Whether Cowell will cause significant damage to the brand by absenting himself from the TV screen remains to be seen. The X Factor is resuming for the eighth time with a panel of judges that is all new but for the Irish manager Louis Walsh, the man who gave us the boy bands Boyzone and Westlife, but who is at least as well known nowadays for having a glass of water chucked in his face by an irate Mrs Osbourne. He somehow seems as eager to be there as the hordes of X Factor fans waiting for hours on the O2 plaza, like cattle in pens.
Walsh takes his place at the table alongside two young female singers, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos. Sitting in Cowell's seat is Gary Barlow, the lead singer of Take That , who is substituting as the panel's Mr Nasty. As the hopefuls disport themselves, Barlow is the one who cuts even the best ones off at the knees. However, having spent the past 15 years in the public eye projecting an easy-going, nice-guy image, he seems mightily miscast. You don't believe him for a second.
But there is little about The X Factor that is not stage-managed, even down to Cowell's unscripted appearance. Indeed, the only thing that feels genuine is the audience adoration of him. And while the rich get richer, the grateful worker ants carry on singing for no pay. It's an ingenious business model.
The new season of The X Factor starts today. Follow the series on http://xfactor.itv.com.
The infinite search for stars
The biggest spinoff of Pop Idol and The X Factor is American Idol, on which Simon Cowell had been a judge for many years.
The X Factor judge Cheryl Cole crossed the Atlantic this year to be a judge on the forthcoming US X Factor but it was reported that she was sent home when no one could understand her broad Newcastle accent.
In the summer, Cowell also sits in on a modern version of old-fashioned variety TV in the form of Britain's Got Talent, which has also spun off into various other territories, including the Middle East (see opposite page). It was this show that yielded the strange phenomenon that is Susan Boyle, pictured. It also helped boost the television career of Larry King's replacement, Piers Morgan.
As for the BBC, its attempt to copy the talent show format initially floundered with Fame Academy, whose winners have all long since sunk without trace. It moved onto safer ground with a series of talent contests designed to find stars to take the lead in major West End musicals. The title of the show was always a song from the musical in question: thus How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? for The Sound of Music; Any Dream Will Do for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; I'd Do Anything for Oliver!; and Over the Rainbow for The Wizard of Oz.
The common denominator of each show was Andrew Lloyd Webber in the Cowell role. He managed to engineer a huge hike in his personal popularity. (ITV got in on the act with You're The One That I Want and Grease.) Musical theatre is providing a more reliable career path as all of the stars are still working.
Meanwhile, an endless parade of stars have been invited to participate in Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice.
Talent to return
The second season of the popular Arabs Got Talent - the only such reality television show made by Arabs for Arabic-speaking audiences - is scheduled to begin in March 2012 on MBC4.
The show, part of Simon Cowell's worldwide, multimillion-dollar Got Talent franchise, is one of a growing number of international TV formats being "Arabised" for broadcast in the region.
Amateur performers seeking fame have been auditioning for the show for months. Earlier this year, in the competition's first season, a five-member team of Emirati yolla dancers made it to the semi-finals.