LOS ANGELES - Simon Cowell predicted "The X Factor" would be a TV hit and eclipse his ex-employer, "American Idol." He was wrong, and now his show has been gutted of three of its five stars, including Paula Abdul, putting its future in question.
Where does Fox's "X Factor" go from here in trying to replace them and compete in a crowded field of singing contests when it returns this year for season two?
Money is an issue: Aside from its talent contracts, the show's first season was expensively promoted and lavishly produced. Whether Cowell, others producers and the network will open sufficiently deep pockets when they go in search of stars to replace Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger is an open question.
Fox's favorite son, "American Idol," reportedly wooed Jennifer Lopez with $10 million for her first season on the show and kept her with a second-season deal worth up to $20 million - proof of Fox's continued confidence in the show, even as it ages, to earn substantial ratings and advertising dollars. Can a rookie that stumbled out of the gate expect the same?
A new host also must be hired to replace Steve Jones, who tweeted Tuesday that his departure was "a shame" but didn't give a reason for the change.
Neither did Cowell, who in a statement Wednesday saluted Abdul on her departure and gave a "massive thank you" to her, Scherzinger of Pussycat Dolls fame and Jones for their work. Fox reality chief Mike Darnell also avoided discussing reasons for the shakeup in a "We love Paula" shout out.
But Abdul cut closer to the issue.
"I've learned through my longevity in this industry that business decisions often times override personal considerations," she said in a statement, adding that she and Cowell remained friends and she was grateful for the "X Factor" opportunity.
The show had reunited Cowell and Abdul, former "American Idol" teammates. Abdul had quit "Idol" following a contract dispute and Cowell left to try to re-create the magic of "X Factor," a hit in Britain and elsewhere, in the U.S. market.
His bravado in promising a top-rated show that would eclipse "American Idol," which awkwardly also airs on Fox, proved overblown. Although "X Factor" gave Fox a stronger presence on Thursday, a lucrative night for advertising, it failed to match the No. 1 status of "Idol" and often lingered near the bottom of Nielsen Co.'s 20 top-rated shows - good, not great.
(Even "Idol" seems to be suffering from singing-contest overload this season, with its ratings down by double-digit percentages. New competitors who may be diluting the genre's appeal include "The Voice," with Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine among its heavyweight pop star judges. )
While Abdul and Scherzinger apparently failed to live up to Cowell's standards, kicking off both the show's female stars seems less than gallant. Another woman, British pop star Cheryl Cole, lost her place at the judging table in a dispute with Cowell before the show aired and was replaced by Scherzinger.
That adds to the challenge of finding replacements: Who wants to come aboard and risk taking the fall if "X Factor" doesn't improve next season?
For now, judge Antonio "L.A." Reid appears secure. And so does Cowell - until season two airs and Fox takes a hard look at whether his TV baby is growing into the blockbuster that Cowell promised.