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
Sunday 12 June 2011
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.
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