Two talented performers in the well-over-25 category have made it to the final. They will be performing under an intense media spotlight in front of a caustic judge. The second-place contestant stands to lose £100m. The winner will claim the rights to the most successful reality TV format ever aired. But who will be crowned King of Pop Idol?
The arena is the High Court, where two sets of lawyers are representing two giants of pop music, Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell. The case has been brought by Fuller, whose company 19TV created Pop Idol and American Idol. He is taking action against Cowell and his firms, Syco and Simco, accusing him of stealing the Pop Idol format for The X Factor. Though the lawyers are attempting to broker an out-of-court settlement, the prospect of a court battle is still very real. It is all, one might argue, a lot of fuss over nothing, but one only need look at the acres of press coverage Louis Walsh's walk-out from The X Factor has stirred this week to know that TV talent shows are big business.
How did it come to this? Both have worked in the music industry, as managers, talent scouts, and producers for over 20 years. Both are enormously successful, worth in excess of £100m each. So why the showdown?
"Their egos are bigger than any show," says the ex-Popstars judge Pete Waterman, who has watched Fuller and Cowell's relationship develop over 20 years. "That's the problem here. It's about who created what, and whose ego is bigger. It's about who's the genius. The court will have to decide whether the format is original - that's why they are there. But I think it's really about who's the king of the castle. It's a bloody expensive way of doing it, but you know what? They don't give a shit. The lawyers must love this case."
Fuller and Cowell, 45 and 46 respectively, started at the bottom. Fuller ran local discos while Cowell served as a post boy for EMI, where his father worked. Both would taste success early on, but Fuller was the more successful. Naturally a behind-the-scenes player with an acute business brain, he started at Chrysalis. His break came when his client Paul Hardcastle's anti-Vietnam anthem "19" sold 8m copies, and he would later name his management company 19. 19 has since handled the careers of everyone from S Club 7 to the Beckhams, but he is best known for discovering and managing the Spice Girls.
As a manager, Fuller is ruthless. He reputedly told S Club 7: "I could put cardboard cut-outs of you on the stage and it wouldn't make any difference". The Spice Girls, too, were sufficiently fed up with his domineering to drop him as their manager in 1997.
Fuller's real skill, which would make him phenomenal amounts of money, was his ability to see tie-ins. Both the Spice Girls and S Club 7 were not just bands but brands, and both were wheeled out into other media - the Spice Girls in the movie SpiceWorld, and S Club 7 in their own television series.
Cowell was more music-focused. He was extravagant, a natural networker with a flamboyant touch. Aged 29, he joined S Records, where he made waves with outfits such as Five, Westlife and Robson and Jerome. Early on at S, he was so broke he had to live with his parents. A decade later he would sell his share in the company for a reputed £42m.
Fuller saw Cowell's potential to be Mr Nasty in Pop Idol, which he was developing, and the high-waisted Torquemada was brought in. What role each played in developing the show, which first aired in October 2001, is the subject of the case now before the courts, but celebrity PR Mark Borkowski thinks determining intellectual property will be nigh-on impossible.
"The thing with new formats is that they gestate," Borkowski says. "As they grow, more and more people get involved - developers, consultants, etc. Whose idea was it in the beginning? Who knows? But whenever you get a conflict like this, camps are bound to form. And people fall into whoever looks like the strongest person to lead their corner."
What has riled Fuller is that The X Factor, which is produced by and stars Cowell, and which began in October 2004, has been enormously successful. Fuller claims Cowell effectively stole the idea from Pop Idol and will be directing the court towards several similarities. They are both singing talent shows with regional auditions followed by finals conducted before live studio audiences. The make-up of the judges is similar: one bad cop (Simon Cowell/Nasty Nigel), one good cop (Louis Walsh/Neil Fox), and one conciliatory female (Sharon Osbourne/Nikki Clarke).
But, as Cowell's lawyers will no doubt argue, all talent shows follow much the same format. The most marked difference lies in the type of talent the two shows unearth. The X Factor has three categories - 16-25s, 25 and overs, and groups - while Pop Idol was only interested in young solo acts.
All that is for the courts to decide, and is, in the opinion of many who know the two, largely irrelevant. They have been jovially competitive in flaunting their wealth - Cowellgazumped Fuller's place on a list to buy a limited-edition Mercedes Maybach, worth £300,000. And Cowell has intimated Fuller is jealous that the man whose TV career he launched is now huge in the UK and America, where as American Idol host, he takes home in excess of £36m a year.
"It [the relationship] has been strained for some time", says Waterman. "They saw it as a marriage of convenience when they came together for Pop Idol. And, when they formed a relationship over that product, neither of them really worried about what each other's role was. But as Pop Idol became a global success, both found it very difficult to live within the show. The show simply wasn't big enough for both of them."
What spices up the acrimony is that American Idol, which is aired by Fox, is due to run its fifth season in January. Cowell was signed to a three-season deal in 2003, but this is the first year the winner does not have to sign to his Sony BMG-based record label. The New York Times reported a senior associate of Cowell's saying that he "was not interested in making a star for another label."
Add to that the fact that Cowell has The X Factor up his sleeve, and that Fuller is suing him, and Cowell may well walk away from the whole project. And it is hard to see American Idol progressing without its star player. A music industry executive who knows both intimately says, "Cowell can't lose whatever happens. He's the star on TV. If he loses the court case, he will just turn round to Fuller and say 'Fuck you, I ain't doing Idol.'"
The same executive says: "What it boils down to is that Fuller cannot beat the man who is actually on television. Either Fox will have to pay Cowell an absurd amount of money to do American Idol - and I've heard that $20m an episode is being talked about - or the Americans take Cowell's show."
"This is a game of brag, and Simon Cowell has a prial of threes [an unbeatable hand]. It doesn't matter what the argument is, or who's right and who's wrong, you can't beat the superstar. Never. Fuller, at some point, has to renegotiate with Cowell. You would have thought they would have done it before they went to court, but like I said, it's a game of brag."
Brag or not, it is time for both men to put up or shut up. And, as with all good reality TV, there can only be one winner.
AGE : 45
CLIENTS: The Beckhams, Will Young, Rachel Stevens, S Club 7, The Spice Girls.
HIGHS: The Spice Girls' reign. Having loads of cash.
LOWS: Spiceworld, the movie.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: "Critics probably don't like me because I'm so nice. I'm incredibly articulate, thoughtful and moral."
WAISTBAND HEIGHT: Middling
CLIENTS: Robson and Jerome, Five.
HIGHS: Starring in 'American Idol'. Performing a cameo in 'The Simpsons'. Having loads of cash.
LOWS: Having an affair with hair-sprayed 1980s pop sensation Sinitta. Managing girl band Girl Thing, who flopped spectacularly. Being unashamed of working with Robson and Jerome.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: "If you've got a big mouth and you're controversial, you're going to get attention."
WAISTBAND HEIGHT: VertiginousReuse content