It's difficult to praise someone who's stingy with kind words and is downright cruel at times, often to fragile folks desperately needing to be let down easy.
But let's give the devil his due: love him or hate him – it's okay to hate him, it’s made him rich – Simon Cowell has exerted a greater influence over television in recent years than perhaps any other media figure.
Not that’s necessarily a good thing.
Some might blame Cowell for being the prime carrier of the Reality TV plague that's infected televisions everywhere – a rap he only partly deserves.
The success of “Idol” has helped pave the way for often-inane dancing stars, dancing non-stars, weight loss shows, nasty chefs and a certain mogul with a jones for firing. But there’s a difference between competition-driven reality fare and more insidious shows that turn cameras on D-list celebrities, useless rich folks and amalgamations of wanna-bes willing to endure cramped living quarters with hostile strangers to get on TV.
Either way, the “Idol” years sadly haven’t been a boom time for scripted fare, as networks seek cheap, quick fixes amid shrinking audiences and competition from the Internet. "Idol" benefits from being a very web friendly show, bursting with clips of the latest standout performer, groan-inducing delusion cases (paging William Hung) and the latest stinging Cowell put down.
Cowell also has been accused – again, only part fairly – of ruining pop music. There’s an anti-Cowell backlash in Britain, where a hundreds of thousands downloaded a 1992 Rage Against the Machine song just to prevent an “X Factor” winner from notching a coveted holiday No. 1 hit in the UK. But that may be placing too much blame on Cowell, with the music business in even more flux than television.
The appeal of “Idol,” perhaps the last of the mass audience TV shows, doesn’t rest in its judges, but in the performers, the drama-filled competition and the viewer participation, which gives the public a chance to stick it to Cowell and make AT&T even richer with every vote.
Some talented folks with apparent staying power have arisen from “Idol” – most recently Adam Lambert. Cowell’s other ventures, including "Britain's Got Talent," have produced some stars – notably Susan Boyle who caused Cowell to choke on his sarcasm.
Cowell was smart enough to recognize the dowdy Scot whose looks don't match her angelic voice was the next big thing.
He seems to be following those instincts as he prepares to leave "Idol," which remained America's highest-rated program last season, even as it shed viewers. The show also is clearly in transition: adding Kara DioGuardi last season, losing Cowell’s favorite sparring partner, Paula Abdul, before this season and replacing her with Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres, an outsized personality, may actually serve as a substitute for Cowell in the long run.
In “The X Factor," mentors help prepare acts, which include a very non-"Idol"-like over-25 category.
Sounds like a perfect role for Cowell, one he's played on the British show, which supplanted the UK version of “Idol.” It also sounds like a great part for a certain nurturing, if ditzy, choreographer and singer who just left the judge’s table at a major TV talent show...
That kind of talk is designed to make for great buzz – as does Cowell’s revealing his departure plans on the eve of the “Idol” ninth season debut (Tuesday night on Fox, in case you somehow missed the bazillion promos).
Let’s be as blunt as Cowell: he’s a great showman with an eye for both talent and cheese, who for better – and probably mostly for worse – has helped change the face of entertainment. No matter what happens after this season of “American Idol,” we’ll still have Simon Cowell to kick us around.
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.