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Simon Cowell Begins Final Season of ‘Idol’

PASADENA, Calif. - Simon Cowell will leave American Idol after this season, which launches tonight (Fox, 8 ET/PT). But the British judge will return to Fox in fall 2011 with a U.S. version of his hit British talent series The X Factor.

The departure will leave Idol without its biggest attraction next year, but Cowell and Fox executives say they believe the top-rated show will remain a strong performer for many years. Cowell, who will be an X Factor judge and executive producer, likened his exit to a football team going on after a star player retires.

"I genuinely believe this show could last 10 or 20 years," he said at a gathering of TV critics here. "I want to leave Idol this year bigger and better than it's been before."

Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice says Cowell is "irreplaceable" but adds that Idol is "an amazing television show. . . . We're going to ensure this season is great and then try to make sure next season is great."

Others say TV's top-rated series will take a hit. "He has really become the star of the show," says Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. "Very rarely in reality (TV) have we seen somebody so closely identified with the success of the show."

Shari Anne Brill of ad firm Carat says: "There's the dynamic between him and the contestants, him and the judges, him and (host) Ryan Seacrest. I don't know how that gets replicated."

Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says the show won't try to find a duplicate to succeed Cowell. "We're looking for a unique personality, not a replacement," he says, just as new judge Ellen DeGeneres followed Paula Abdul.

Might Abdul be a judge on X Factor? "I adore Paula," Cowell says. "Whatever happens, I will be working with her in some capacity."

Fox executives hope Cowell will agree to appear in some role next year on Idol; otherwise, he'll be off the air in the USA for 16 months.

X Factor is a huge hit in the U.K., where it launched the career of Leona Lewis; it has expanded to 17 countries.

It's a broader-based talent search than Idol that has no age limit for singers and is open to groups. The judges act as mentors, overseeing such things as clothing, choreography and song choice.

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