Forget Lee vs. Crystal: My most pressing American Idol finale question has nothing to do with who will win TV's highest-rated singing competition and everything to do with the man who built it in the first place.
In other words: How do you bid a fond goodbye to a guy who may be the least sentimental person on television?
Paying tribute to departing Idol judge Simon Cowell risks feeding his raging arrogance while underplaying his importance.
He's a billionaire record executive whose biggest artists are mostly TV creations; a voice of withering reality on a program some artists say smothers the music business; and a brash egotist who explains away his blunt manner as brutal honesty.
And as he leaves the show to start his own talent competition, Idol will miss him more than it knows. Even now.
Fox executives have already said finding Cowell's replacement is their most important job this summer. And those who hope to replace him have been campaigning for months, from U2 producer Steve Lillywhite's pleading YouTube video (his money line: "I have spent 30 years telling Bono what to do") to the Facebook campaign by Madonna's estranged brother Christopher Ciccone (who set up an interview to talk about it all and then never called me).
It's a sad fact: There are few people who so glamorously combine music business acumen, on-camera appeal and the ability to pierce a wavering contestant with a prickly observation so accurate viewers forgive him for being an egotistical jerk.
"It's actually more cruel to lie to someone and give them false expectations," Cowell told me in an interview two years ago. "If they're hopeless, there's no point in saying 'Take a couple of singing lessons, and you'll become Mariah Carey.' "
Here's the biggest reasons why we'll miss Simon more than we'll celebrate Lee DeWyze's victory over Crystal Bowersox tonight. (Cowell, Las Vegas oddmakers and this longtime fan agree the former paint store clerk's got it in the bag.)
He lets us feel superior: Cowell's barbs enable an important element of any successful "reality TV" show; the humiliation ritual. Just like Jersey Shore or Maury, Idol attracts some fans by letting us all feel a little superior to the participants — especially during the audition phase. And no one conjures superiority more effectively than Simon Cowell.
He anchors the judges table: No matter what Randy Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres or Kara DioGuardi say, the show pauses a bit before Cowell speaks. Even when he's wrong, he makes sense in ways the three other judges still struggle to master.
He has to sell the winner's record: As owner of the record company that releases the Idol winner's record, Cowell has the only opinion backed by a real financial motivation. At times, you can sense him weighing words while anticipating which singer he'd rather see on an album cover.
He doesn't care what you think, either: Guest judges often fail because they are too aware of the audience. But such mealy mouthed evaluations are ultimately boring. And the one thing Cowell hates more than stupidity is boredom.