Cowell's Got to Be Kidding

Plan for Simon to judge contestants as young as 12 could take the joy out of "The X Factor"

One of more enjoyable parts of watching the reconstituted "American Idol" is that the auditions seem to be attracting younger, fresher talents, compared to last season's disappointing contestant crop.

The change is likely due in part to the lowering of the minimum age to 15 – a move made palatable by the transformation of the judges' table into a largely nastiness-free zone in the post-Simon era (even if Steven Tyler needs to lose the leering).

So forgive us for being alternately amused and concerned by Cowell's announcement this week that he'll be a judge on the U.S. version of his talent show, "The X Factor" – a program that will feature contestants as young as 12, with no age limit.

Cowell crushed many a young ego during his nine seasons on "Idol," which was demoralizing enough for the 16-and-up set. Putting him up against sixth graders portends to be an exercise in cruelty that could pretty quickly take the joy out of "X."

It's fairly certain Cowell is smart enough not to blatantly make sport of adolescents. We're assuming the younger contestants will be screened so that only the strongest will make it before him – unlike the "Idol" audition freak shows, where the self-deluded and talent-free were served up as straight lines for Cowell's cutting comedy.

And we're guessing he'll try to restrain his trademark mockery when critiquing the youngest, most vulnerable hopefuls, who already will have ample pressure performing in front of an in-studio audience of 5,000 with $5 million in prize money on the line.

But his reputation precedes him, particularly with contestants who were toddlers when "Idol" debuted and grew up with him as TV’s best-known purveyor of sarcasm. Attitude can speak louder than unspoken jibes.

The question becomes can Cowell recreate himself, particularly after his announcement a little over year ago that he was leaving "Idol" helped turn last season into a hard-to-watch slog at times, rather than a victory lap.

Fox's special effects-packed promo during the Super Bowl for "The X Factor" – featuring Cowell being rebuilt piece by piece like a creature out of “The Terminator” and the tagline "He's back" – suggested we're getting both a new and old Simon.

Whatever the case, he's successfully turned the conversation back to him, with "Idol" just three weeks into its new season and the debut of “The X Factor” at least seven months away.

Cowell still hasn't announced the rest of his judging lineup, and isn’t ruling out a seat on the panel for Paula Abdul, his loopy former "Idol" sparring partner whose departure kicked off that show's slow decline.

The reteaming/rematch would fit with the old/new theme. Signing up Abdul to revive her role as the kindly eccentric aunt to Cowell’s cranky uncle also could serve at least one important purpose: After all, someone will need to look after the kids.

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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