Simon Cowell and Donald Trump share a lot more these days than just reputations as blunt, often-caustic TV competition show judges.
Both are heading into the May ratings sweeps practicing the art of the steal – at least when it comes to grabbing publicity. And while the goals and the stakes of their quests may differ, Cowell and Trump seem to have at least one common target in their far-ranging, thunder-swiping efforts: "American Idol."
The two moguls/showmen are the stars of what are shaping up as parallel TV sideshows worth watching over the next month – and perhaps far beyond.
It's no coincidence Cowell's declaration that he wants Paula Abdul to join him on “The X Factor” comes as the "Idol" talent contest enters the homestretch of its best season in years. Cowell's recent comments to Deadline about his former “Idol” sparring partner also come amid the huge promotion campaign for NBC’s new singing competition show, "The Voice."
The star-maker who helped build "Idol" knows all publicity is good publicity when it comes to creating buzz. Every nugget of information Cowell drops about his new show seems carefully choreographed to capitalize on his old show’s surprising success without him. Both programs are on Fox, and will air during different times of the year, so the network presumably wins in this faux battle of “Idol” and “The X Factor” as Cowell’s need for exposure is fed.
Trump, not exactly a limelight avoider himself, is playing a similar, if more bizarre – and higher-stakes – game with potential implications that go well beyond mere TV success or failure.
We don't pretend to know exactly what's transpiring in the brain under the developer’s swept-over mane. But his flirtation with the presidency, his so-far evidence-free claims about President Obama's birthplace and education – and his igniting of a slew of new feuds – aren't exactly hurting "Celebrity Apprentice," which reportedly saw a 12 percent bump in the most recent ratings.
Whether Trump most wants to win the top spot in the White House or in the Nielsens is unknown to anyone but him. But it’s worth noting that the May 22 season finale of "Celebrity Apprentice," in which he's expected to make an announcement about a possible presidential announcement, comes just days before the heavily promoted season finale of the peculiar pop-culture form of American democracy that is "American Idol."
Meanwhile, “Idol,” remains TV’s top show, and is slightly up in the ratings this season, gaining viewers for the first time since 2007 – defying, as The New York Times recently put it, “television gravity.”
Cowell and Trump are attempting to defy gravity themselves by launching trial balloons that may or may not be filled with hot air. The coming weeks will tell whether these Reality TV running mates come crashing down to earth or rise to new levels of hype. We’ll be looking them up – and down.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.