New Twist for ‘American Idol’: Time Out for Charity

March 12, 2007 -- BILL CARTER - In terms of cash flow, nobody in the television business comes close to Simon Cowell, the star attraction of television’s biggest attraction, “American Idol.” So it only made sense that he be in the middle of that show’s first charity extravaganza: raising cash for the poor of Africa and the United States.

That project was announced last week amid what Mr. Cowell called “a lot of drama and emotion.” Much of that attached to one of this year’s contestants, Antonella Barba, who had been surviving every week despite consistent disparagement about her singing ability from Mr. Cowell.

Ms. Barba had been the subject of intense Internet searches, largely because of some intimate photos — perhaps not all of them legitimate — posted on some Web sites. Rosie O’Donnell on “The View” criticized “Idol” for having ditched a singer, Frenchie Davis, during a previous season because of some lurid photos on the Web, while not acting against Ms. Barba.

The show’s producers never commented on the picture flap at all, and Ms. Barba’s run of notoriety ended with her ouster Thursday night. Mr. Cowell, who also did not want to comment on specifics of the controversy, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Barba had been “what everyone wanted to talk about.”

But everything relating to “Idol” is talked about expansively right now. That was the big reason why, to many on the show, it seemed the right time to commit to a good cause.

The fund-raiser was the brainchild of British film writer-director Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), who has put together entertainment-based charitable efforts in England. The “Idol” fund-raising event, during the show’s broadcasts on April 24 and 25, will have a roster of guest stars, including Gwen Stefani, Pink and Sacha Baron Cohen, appearing the second night.

Mr. Curtis, in a telephone interview, said he had approached Mr. Cowell, as well as Simon Fuller, the other chief creative force behind “Idol,” and asked them to use the overwhelming appeal of “American Idol” to support a charity event.

“They were on board right away,” Mr. Curtis said. Mr. Cowell immediately signed on to travel to Africa himself, along with the “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest.

Mr. Cowell called his visit to Kenya “one of those things which will sort of change your life.” But he emphasized that the show will be intended “to raise awareness — I don’t want to preach on this.”

Mr. Cowell may be the most important cog in the “Idol” juggernaut, but he said he still views the show as a means to develop artists for his label. “We’re selling a lot of records,” he said. “If the job was just judging on ‘Idol,’ I don’t know if I could keep coming back and doing it.”

Even nonwinners on the show, like last season’s Chris Daughtry, have started selling millions of albums. “When I did the deal for ‘Idol,’ I said this will launch the biggest recording artists in the world — and it has,” Mr. Cowell said.

One of those turned out to be Jennifer Hudson, the “Idol” also-ran three seasons ago who won an Oscar for “Dreamgirls.” Part of Ms. Hudson’s rising legend has been that she overcame harsh opposition from Mr. Cowell. “I’ve kept my mouth shut about that for the most part,” Mr. Cowell said, though he pointed out that reviews of the show’s tapes have proved he had made mostly positive comments about Ms. Hudson.

Mr. Cowell’s side business, producing other reality shows, is also tracking well. His British series, “The X Factor,” just finished another season as a No. 1 rated show. Mr. Cowell said he has sold that format in 20 countries. (He agreed not to sell it in the U.S. because of its similarities to “Idol.”)

His two American reality shows will return this summer. “American Inventor” will resume on ABC with a yet-to-be-named new host, Mr. Cowell said. “America’s Got Talent” will be back on NBC with Jerry Springer as the new host. “Inventor” has sold in 15 countries and “Talent” in 25, leading Mr. Cowell to say he is well on his way toward “having all the shows in 30, 40 countries in the next five years.” If that’s not quite enough, Mr. Cowell is creating a drama series for British television, something he summarized as “ ‘American Idol’ meets ‘Dallas.’ ”

Meanwhile, back at the root of all this lucrative activity, Mr. Cowell was willing to stick his judge’s neck out on this year’s “Idol” contest. “I think the favorites are Melinda and Lakisha,” he said, referring to Melinda Doolittle and Lakisha Jones. “But I think this guy Blake Lewis could be a dark horse.”

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