There will be at least five more "American Idol" winners — and insult-wielding Simon Cowell is booked to do his part in selecting each one.
Fox on Tuesday announced a deal for five more editions of the nation's most popular television program, with plans to help ardent fans keep in touch with the talent contest over the Internet and on cell phones.
Key to the deal was the settlement of a lawsuit against Cowell by fellow British pop impresario Simon Fuller, creator of "American Idol."
As the judge alongside Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, Cowell is the show's breakout star, unafraid to take the villain's role in offering blunt assessments of young people trying to become singing stars. His contract was due to expire at the end of the season that starts in January; Tuesday's deal extends the show for four years after that.
"All I know is this: the show as it exists now gets a lot of energy and excitement from Simon," said Robert F.X. Sillerman, chairman of CKX, Inc., owner of Fuller's production company.
Five years is an unusually long commitment for television, but "American Idol" has shown little sign of fading in popularity since its debut in 2002. Fox has run only one edition per year, from January through May, and the new deal continues that pattern, Sillerman said.
The show currently airs on Tuesday and Wednesday each week, but Fox is considering moving one of those editions to Thursdays. That would give Fox a toehold on the night that is the most lucrative for advertising revenue, but also put "American Idol" up against stiffer competition.
Fox is expected to announce its scheduling plans soon, a network spokesman said.
The deal is tremendously important to Fox, which finished No. 1 last season for the first time among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers that advertisers crave. While awaiting the "American Idol" return this season, it is narrowly edging NBC for third place behind ABC and CBS.
The deal allows Fox to set up an "American Idol" Web site that will stream additional video material from the show to broadband users, Sillerman said. For a fee, fans will also be able to buy even more extensive video, he said.
Fox and producers are also negotiating to sell "American Idol" content — downloads of videos or ring tones, for instance — to cell phone users, he said.
"Frankly, we think the revenue opportunities are limitless for this," he said.
In his copyright infringement lawsuit, Fuller had claimed that Cowell had copied the format of "Pop Idol" — the British version that predated the U.S. version of "American Idol" — for Cowell's new show "X-Factor." That talent show currently airs in Britain and Fox has the option to make an American version, although the network has not scheduled one.
A spokesman for Fuller confirmed the lawsuit had been settled out of court in Britain, but offered no details.
"Simon Fuller is delighted to have agreed to a new partnership with Simon Cowell," said Julian Henry. "The two are friends and respect each other."
In previous seasons, Cowell had the right to sign the "American Idol" winner to his record label on Sony BMG. Those rights had expired, but as part of the new deal Cowell retains that lucrative edge for five more seasons, Sillerman said.
By David Bauder