Simon Cowell Leaves ‘American Idol’: Now What?

It’s happening, whether you want it to or not: Simon’s leaving American Idol. But don’t worry—we’ve given this almost 24 hours of thought, and we think we’ve got the whole situation sorted out: Why Simon really left; how to cope with his exit; and, while we’re at it, whether Idol should continue at all, and if so, how. We break it down for you after the jump.

Why God, Why?

We were weeping into our over-size beer Coke cups when we began thinking over Mark Lisanti’s Movieline piece, which is full of armchair therapy tips for those of us suffering from Cowell-abandonment issues. Lisanti advises, basically, that we savor Cowell while we have him, and try to remember that he’ll still be on TV on pretty much every continent in the world.

But we’re still hurting here, dammit—why leave us now, Simon? Ryan Seacrest interviewed Cowell on his KIIS-FM radio show this morning, and although he would barely say a word about the details of the U.S. version of his British hit The X Factor, he did offer a glimpse into why he’s bolting AI after Season 9. Reports E! Online:

“I think you gotta know when it’s time to go,” Simon told Ryan. “I’ve always wanted to bring this other show over here. At one point I was going to both shows but you know about overexposure, Ryan, you can’t be on TV too much. That was really the decision. I genuinely thought people would be sick and tired of me.”

Not everyone buys the idea that it came down to a simple sense of timing. Idol whiz Richard Rushfield blogs at The Daily Beast that Cowell ultimately left because he aspired to do more than serve as on-air “talent” for America’s biggest show—he wanted to control and produce his own TV enterprise instead. And his longtime rivalry with British talent whiz Simon Fuller, the boss at 19 Entertainment (which co-produces Idol, as well as So You Think You Can Dance?) had reached a breaking point.

Basically, Simon is betting his chips on The X Factor, where as a producer he’d own a bigger piece of the action and hold even more sway, even as he also appears on the show as a mentor and judge. Of course, now rumors are swirling that with the departure of Cowell, Fuller is looking to move upstairs too, into an even bigger (although less creative) job, as CEO at parent company CKX.

Is anything stable at Idol now? Well, Seacrest isn’t going anywhere—he’s contractually stuck there for three more seasons. But once Ryan’s contract is up, (and he’s already richer than God), how much you want to bet he’ll be looking to move onto a new, more challenging project after hosting the same show for twelve years? It’s truly looking like Idol will most definitely not “outlive us all,” as current CKX CEO Robert F.X. Sillerman recently put it. (Although he may have just said it to persuade Fuller from leaving Idol and nabbing his job.)

Will We Watch? And Can Cowell Be Replaced?

There are several competing schools of thought on how Fox should proceed, with one of the most dramatic views coming from MTV’s Jim Cantiello, who argues that the network should cancel the show altogether, putting it down “like a sick dog.”

But as EW‘s Michael Slezak points out, Cowell splitting could provide a great chance for someone with cutting-edge sensibilities or a different vibe to inject new life into the show. MTV even offers a few suggestions, including LA Reid, Clive Davis, Quentin Tarantino (who has put together great soundtrack and shown that he can play the tough guy) and Conan O’Brien (ha).

But with Paula now gone, we no longer have a (once) legitimate pop star at the judge’s table, somebody who knows what it’s like to really perform in front of a crowd of millions. (Sorry, Ellen, stand-up isn’t the same thing in this case.) And with the one brutally honest judge soon to be gone, too, why not find somebody who can fill both roles?

Let’s get Billy Joel in there! Elton John! Cher! Dare we say, Madonna? We dare you to find somebody with a better combination of music credentials and a serious aversion to B.S. than Ms. Ciccone. (Maybe if Pink didn’t have at least a few more decades of performing yet to go, we’d suggest her, too, but we’d rather her keep focus on recording and touring at this point).

And you know what? Even Jennifer Lopez might make for an interesting pick. Think about it — she’d maybe fill the ex-pop-star seat vacated by Paula AND the caustic critic seat left behind by Simon. “Louboutins” aside, J-Lo has scored a string of hits and possesses more than a decade of experience performing in the public eye, and still maintains A-list recognition. Plus, we think she’s got enough sass to play the bitchy role instead of the encouraging one.

Basically, if Fox can snag a giant name—with music an undeniable music background—the network just might have The X Factor beat. (Hey, why not just replace all four judges with the ubiquitous Black Eyed Peas? Pay them enough, and they’ll do it.)

Of course, any assumptions about the potential fall of Idol rest partly on the idea that The X Factor will be warmly embraced in America, as it has been in the U.K. And the idea that Simon Cowell has never made a wrong decision in his life… right? Right?