Simons go head to head in battle for US ratings

The X Factor is heading for the States, pitting Simon Cowell's show against his old friend Simon Fuller's American Idol.
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The Independent Culture

Yet again, America's got our talent. After months of speculation, dozens of high-powered meetings, and the drafting of contracts that could increase Simon Cowell's bank balance to the tune of $100m, The X Factor is crossing the Atlantic.

The hit programme, the only major British TV talent show that hasn't been syndicated to the US, is about to make a lucrative move into the world's biggest market, according to reports in the entertainment industry press.

Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, whose American Idol is the nation's best-watched programme, pulling between 25 and 30 million viewers an episode, is said by the Hollywood Reporter to be on the verge of "hammering out" the move in one of the biggest deals in TV history. Mr Cowell will be paid $50m a year to executive-produce the new programme, over which he will boast majority ownership and creative control. In return, the 49-year-old former record industry executive will be required to remain on the judging panel of Idol until 2012. That will net him another $50m a year. However, size isn't the only thing that makes The X Factor's deal significant: it also represents the first major deal that Mr Cowell has negotiated since he entered an ambitious business partnership with the retail magnate Sir Philip Green.

The duo are hoping to use their combined financial and celebrity clout to become leading players in the production side of a reality TV industry which – for better or worse – has grown into Britain's most successful cultural export of modern times.

Their plans have ruffled feathers in some quarters. In particular, they represent a threat to 19 Entertainment, the Simon Fuller-run firm that is now part of the international media conglomerate CFX.

Mr Fuller owns the Idol format, and is reported to be concerned that an American version of The X Factor will eat into the profitability of his show, whose audiences have already declined from their peak of nearly 40 million several years ago.

In the past, such concerns have resulted in costly legal battles. In 2005, Mr Fuller sued Mr Cowell, an old friend, saying The X Factor's format was a breach of Idol's copyright.

Both programmes feature thousands of hopefuls being whittled down to a handful of contenders, who are propelled to pop stardom. The appeal of both is reliant on Mr Cowell's acerbic put-downs, which have earned him the sobriquet "Mr Nasty".

The principal difference between The X Factor and its older rival is relatively minor: it features duos and groups, as well as solo artists. It also has a category for older entrants.

Eventually, after months of horse-trading, Mr Fuller and Mr Cowell's case was settled out of court. As part of that deal, Mr Fuller got a share of The X Factor's proceeds, and was given the right to veto the show from appearing in the US. He lifted that veto this summer, apparently to help persuade Mr Cowell to remain with the lucrative American Idol.

That has prompted feverish negotiations, which have seen Sir Philip Green spend recent weeks shuttling back and forth to Los Angeles. There has also been widespread speculation about who will be offered judging spots on The X Factor.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, it remains "a possibility" that Mr Cowell will appear on The X Factor. It also claims that the UK judges Louis Walsh and Cheryl Cole could be exported for the show.

In the background to the development lies financial pressure on all American TV networks, which have been struggling to turn profits amid slumping advertising revenue.

Fox is understood to be highly concerned by the amount of money it is now required to pay Mr Cowell to secure both shows. However if it didn't sew up an X Factor deal, Mr Cowell might have taken the profitable format to its rival NBC.

Understandably, given the delicacy of negotiations, none of those involved was willing to formally discuss them yesterday. Mr Fuller's 19 Entertainment declined to comment, saying The X Factor is not their show. A spokesman for The X Factor in Britain would say only: "There has been lots of speculation and we are not commenting on that speculation."

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