There is a great woman behind every man, even Simon Cowell

Without the creative input of Cécile Frot-Coutaz into his American reality shows the TV mogul's fame and fortune would be considerably diminished, reports Stephen Foley in New York

You might be surprised to find a woman as highly cultured and haute-coutured as Cécile Frot-Coutaz running the television equivalent of a McDonald's franchise.

This, after all, is a woman who screws her nose up when describing the Los Angeles restaurant scene, and its dearth of good cuisine.

Yet the chief executive of the production company FremantleMedia North America is the woman who reimagined Britain's Pop Idol for a US audience, who brought the ... Got Talent format to American television, and who is about to launch The X Factor Stateside, too (minus Cheryl Cole, it now turns out). All three come from "a recipe book you can apply" in almost any country, she says, and you won't find her apologising for it.

These shows are well known for turning Simon Cowell into the most powerful reality TV mogul on the planet, but what many people don't know is that he wouldn't be there without Ms Frot-Coutaz's creative input over the past decade, without her ability to smooth ruffled feathers, or without her savvy in inking some of the most lucrative business deals television has ever seen.

It has been an up-and-down few weeks for the French-born, Insead-educated executive. Her American Idol juggernaut stayed on the road, confounding sceptics who thought ratings would crash without Cowell on the judging panel this year. But if Ms Frot-Coutaz wanted time to celebrate after the season finale at the end of May, it was not to be. Instead, she was having to deal with a major crisis at The X Factor, where Cowell had just fired Cole because of tensions between the British poplet and fellow judge Paula Abdul and problems getting American audiences to understand the thick Geordie accent.

So much for Ms Frot-Coutaz's prediction just three weeks earlier that "America will fall in love with her beauty, her accent and her incredible chemistry with Simon Cowell".

While Cowell is undoubtedly the driving force of The X Factor, and his company Syco takes the lead, Ms Frot-Coutaz is heavily involved as executive producer for Fremantle.

Back in March, when she shared her day's diary with The Hollywood Reporter, her mornings were already taken up with planning for The X Factor, including a phone call with Cowell – and this was even before auditions had begun.

The diary revealed that by the time meetings started at 9am, she had already had breakfast with the family (she is married with two children) and an hour-long session with a personal trainer. In the afternoon she was on set for rehearsals of the next American Idol show, and the evening involved a taping of America's Got Talent, where Piers Morgan took the Cowell role on the judging panel in 2006 and launched himself as a US television star in the process. And even amid all that juggling, there was time for Ms Frot-Coutaz to attend a parent-teacher conference for her seven-year-old daughter, Amelie.

Get your hands dirty, is her advice to upcoming executives. Staying involved in the production process is important, even when your job is high-level strategising, she once told the interviewer Leigh Henderson, and if you are a woman, "don't try to be a man. Use the fact that you are different as a strength." And one other piece of advice: "Don't forget to have children."

Ms Frot-Coutaz learned the business of television at the knee of Greg Dyke while the pair were at the UK firm Pearson in the mid-Nineties, when it owned Thames TV and acquired Grundy, the maker of Neighbours.

When Pearson sold its television business to RTL in 2000, she was already a high-powered European executive, and she followed her boyfriend (now, husband) to the US two years later. She has run the North American operation since 2005, putting her in charge of such august properties as The Price Is Right, the longest-running game show in the US, and new documentary successes such as Deadliest Catch, about Alaskan fishermen. In all, Fremantle made 872 hours of programming for US television last year, up from 705 the year before.

But it is as the queen of reality TV that she is best known in Hollywood. "Some think Idol is corny," she once said. "It probably is a little bit – but people like it."

The Idol franchise that originated in the UK has now churned out 43 different versions across the world, but American Idol remains its biggest banker. Some 38.6 million people in the US tuned in to see country baritone Scotty McCreery win the 10th season, and the show is sold around the world, including to ITV2 in the UK.

Few tasks are more important than selecting the judging panel for these shows, which is why the Cheryl Cole fiasco has taken up so many column inches. Ms Frot-Coutaz has said a show cannot survive with a "crap" panel, although she insists the format is strong enough to survive mediocre judges. The Idol judging panel was completely reinvented after the departure of Cowell and two others, with Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler coming on board instead. Behind the scenes, for continuity, Fremantle and 19 Entertainment, co-owner of the franchise, brought back Nigel Lythgoe as another executive producer, and Idol is again flourishing.

In a victory lap of interviews, as the season posted better viewing figures than it had for several years, Ms Frot-Coutaz said: "It's like family. I spend more time on Idol than I do with my family, and there's that comfort that comes with those relationships. If something bad happened, they'd look out for you. They would."

On other occasions she has likened the relationships between the producers on these shows to a marriage, but one where divorce is not an option. Her relationship with Cowell is said to be occasionally explosive, since they are both forthright in their opinions, but it is based on a great mutual respect.

It is in no small measure down to Frot-Coutaz that Cowell has chosen to produce The X Factor and other Syco shows in partnership with Fremantle, rather than going elsewhere, or negotiating directly with the US networks.

Ms Frot-Coutaz is also the person closest to Fox, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network which picked up Idol and helped turn it not just into the most-watched show on American TV but also one of the most lucrative – thanks to comically ostentatious product placement deals, such as with Coca-Cola.

Now The X Factor is also racking up the sponsorship deals at a ferocious pace, with Pepsi and Chevrolet signing up, and Fremantle is expecting it to be a major hit on a par with Idol. The show will be shown on ITV2 when it starts in September, and it is being sold to many other territories, too.

Ms Frot-Coutaz always says you might as well take risks, since the worst that can happen is you can get fired. But, the little mishap with Cheryl Cole notwithstanding, it doesn't seem as if there is much risk with The X Factor. The recipe book is open at the usual page.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Payments Operations Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They win lots of awards for the...

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Debt Negotiator

£13500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This nationwide enforcement com...

Guru Careers: Communications Exec / PR Exec

£25 - £30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a highly-motivated and ambitious Comm...

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral