The Cowell Question

The Observer is asking the big question – is Svengali in chief Simon Cowell essential to the X Factor? Two journalists debate the pros and cons, intersecting the public conversation surrounding Cowell’s migration to America. But neither address Cowell’s principal ingredient, his enormous power to influence the hype and guide the off-screen narrative.

After watching Britain’s Got Talent – the Dark Lord’s other bastard child – on Saturday, it was obvious from the slow media pick up that something was missing. Taking its first wobbly steps without Daddy, I wondered if it could ever be as successful. Could the new panel of judges cast the same spell and begin to bewitch the nation? Could its freaks and fame-hungry dreamers deliver the same connection to the media, on and offline?

Michael Mcintyre, jester-in-chief to the great unwashed, probably has the stuff; the Hoff is in another time zone; and funky, tender Auntie Amanda Holden looks lost as she tries to take the lead. Without Cowell, it all seemed a little trite; he’d left them with the formula, but the gold dust was missing.

I think this prize content is under threat and may well struggle to survive without the Cowell influence. The cold facts are that he has created formats which are driven by his enterprise and commercial zeal. Understanding Cowell’s determination, one can begin to understand how he reinvented the entertainment event TV formats. His ability to create, star in, steer and publicise his creations is second to none.

Cowell’s talismanic on-screen persona is only one particle of this noxious brew. Commentators fail to acknowledge his personal focus off screen. Crucially on and off screen, his adherence to the craft of hype is awesome. When he is on the ground he is welded to the production. He comprehends the minutiae of the human components – the canon fodder, the folk who deliver the ongoing narrative. This attention produces a peculiar promotional thrust, a jet-propelled ballyhoo.

Make no mistake, Cowell leads from the front, and he ensures everyone understands his high expectations. He expects 1000 % because he gives 1000% . There must be an unconscious fear of failure for the new teams; they are the talent in the shop window, but who will be driving the back office? If standards wane, Cowell’s absence will be felt.

Concentrating on another territory, in another time zone, Cowell’s task in hand is to engineer a massive distraction. The lurid headlines framing his mother’s concern for his health is not idle, tabloid hype. Cowell is flesh and blood welded to mind-boggling ambition. Leaving others in command, Cowell’s inability to steer the format’s promotion might prove to be hid Achilles heel. “From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, when he’d come unstuck in another nation’s chilly hinterland while in pursuit of greater power and glory.

The USA is the entertainment capital of the world and naturally the ultimate prize, but Cowell must ensure he maintains his energy to focus on the narrative engine to ensure it feeds the PR agenda.

I offer this nugget of wisdom: If all fails, success means going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. After all the unbridled success, if Britain’s Got Talent stumbles, it will serve as an early wake up call for Cowell.