Was ‘American Idol’ More Successful when Simon Cowell Was a Judge?

As much derision as Simon Cowell received as a judge on American Idol during the 2000s, no one can deny that he helped establish the brand of how the show worked. Had it not have been for his initial abrasive comments to contestants, one could argue it might not have kept an audience tuning in to see what he’d say next.

Yes, this was the beginning of the reality show era, and Cowell took part in it by bringing brutal honesty to the reality competition show format. The man he is today is a bit different from how he was during the Idol days. Yet, with the 20th anniversary of the show coming up in 2021, it’s worth going back and reanalyzing what Cowell did during his time as a judge.

The consensus now is without Cowell there now, the show isn’t the brand it originally was.

Does ‘Idol’ need a Cowell-like judge to succeed?

Simon Cowell on the red carpet
Simon Cowell | Rachel Luna/Getty Images

It’s easy to argue that without Cowell on the original run of Idol, many of the contestants might have been a bit complacent in their abilities. Cowell played more than a few mind tricks with the singers over the years to get them to step up their game. Even if this was manipulative and made many contestants incensed with his tactics at times, it really did bring some amazing performances a few contestants arguably wouldn’t have reached.

After one studies what Cowell did and why it was almost necessary, it makes the revival of American Idol on ABC almost pale in comparison. When the ABC version began, it took a decidedly more positive spin from the judges’ table. Only Katy Perry could be deemed a little more edgy, even if she ultimately plays nice with all contestants without going too deep into scorching criticism.

Hiring Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan is already asking for a double dose of Mr. Nice Guy. Bryan can hardly say anything critical to a contestant without breaking his own heart. The same goes for Richie who always sees the positive side of a singer, no matter how much latter needs to improve.

Is this why the revival has had such low ratings? Or is it simply because shows like NBC’s The Voice attract better singing talent?

With so many singers out there, being honest is arguably a better path

One could probably joke that more singers exist in the world now than lawyers. Because so many exist, one could argue they need to have better guidance and honest critiquing to help them stand out from the thousands (if not millions) of others.

Simon Cowell was able to turn only moderately talented singers into big stars thanks to his subtle and brutal approaches to bringing the best out in everybody. Just look at the roster of talent he’s produced as proof of how his techniques worked, like them or not. Outside of most not understanding what he was doing and pinning him only as a bully at first, it’s clearer now it’s a required system in the world American Idol.

American Idol will be back yet again on ABC in February of 2020. Should they bring in someone like Cowell to shake things up? Or will it continue to coast as being a subpar version of the original incarnation on Fox?

Family-friendly judging, or more harsh critique?

Maybe some will contend bringing a more judge-friendly atmosphere is better in a more bilious culture we live in. Others might say without serious critique and even some mind games, singers can’t step up to the intense competition they’ll have to face to make a true living at what they do.

If the media seems to promise more “sparks” between the judges in the coming season, maybe the only compromise is the judges being harsh with each other over choosing the Cowell approach with the singers.