After American Idol rebounded following Simon Cowell's departure, it became clear the secret to the Fox reality show's long-running success was not just its acerbic British judge. But it may be in part to the woman behind the scenes of Idol: Cecile Frot- Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America.
Frot-Coutaz largely keeps her name out of the headlines, but the French expatriate whom colleagues describe as "level-headed" is the person managing the purse strings of the lucrative franchise as well as its fellow global hits The X Factor and America's Got Talent. She is also the one tasked with balancing Idol's notorious personalities (not to mention putting up with merciless teasing by Idol's British producers).
"In addition to being really talented and really good at what she does, she's also in the face of lots of politics, and she's very even-keeled in the way she operates," says Mike Darnell, Fox president of alternative entertainment. "She's a great politician, she's great at compromise."
Frot-Coutaz's down-to-business approach is rooted in the beginning of her career in television, on the business side. She joined Pearson Television (which would become FremantleMedia) in 1994 in the central strategy unit after getting her M.B.A. Soon after, the chief executive Greg Dyke, one of her early mentors, hired her to handle M&A strategy as he built up the company's TV assets.
The pair spent the next three years growing Pearson through acquisitions including All American Fremantle, which gave them a presence in the U.S., and the Goodson-Todman library of game shows including Family Feud and the Price Is Right. By 2001, the company became FremantleMedia and Frot-Coutaz had moved to the U.S. where she was instrumental in selling American Idol to Fox. She then became an executive producer on what would become the top-rated TV show in the country.
"She's done this transition from business affairs into the creative side of program-making seamlessly, and I think that's the best compliment I can pay anybody," says Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe.
Though it's the creative, hands-on process that Frot- Coutaz loves most about her job, she also brings a sharp business sense as the show's primary dealmaker, though she's known by colleagues to never let a tough negotiation affect a working relationship. In 2005, she was promoted to CEO and now oversees Fremantle's North American operations, which include the reality shows and syndicated game show properties. She is also working to build up scripted projects like TBS' upcoming The Wedding Band.
"When I arrived it was before she was CEO of Fremantle, she was COO at the time," says Idol executive producer Ken Warwick. "But it became obvious even then that if she ever arose to take over, she would be the ideal person because she was strong, she was honest, she was brave and people liked her because of that reason."
Working in television was not always a goal for Frot-Coutaz, but she had a love for American culture from a young age. She says the highlight of her childhood came when she was 8 and her family moved from Lyon, France to Bethesda, Md. Her father, a research scientist for the French government, did an exchange with the National Institutes of Health. Her family lived in the U.S. for about two years and it was then that she learned to speak English.
"I loved it, I just have the best memories of those two years," she says. "It had a big impact. Those are the years that effectively made me want to come back to the U.S. or maybe not stay in France."
She moved back 11 years ago, and has since made her own mark on the American zeitgeist with shows like Idol. Working primarily on unscripted series, she has come to love their scale, unpredictability and ability to impact pop culture.
"I'm not one of those people who woke up one day and said this is what I want to do, I sort of fell into it. Once you start working in it and you start working on the shows, you kind of fall in love with it," she says. "It affects people's lives in a real way. There's something very interesting about that, very exciting."
This year Frot-Coutaz has been tested, having to juggle both Idol and The X Factor, dealing with live performance shows for one and audition rounds for the other at the same time. And though Idol just returned for its 11th season last week, the X Factor team is already starting discussions for changes to its second season (though like the other producers, she is keeping those details close to the vest). Frot-Coutaz so far is balancing the two well.
"She has an incredible capacity to take on a heavy workload and intense pressure and yet still remains calm, nothing seems to phase her," says Idol creator Simon Fuller, who also notes Frot-Coutaz's devotion to her husband, Elliot, and two daughters (ages 8 and 3), despite her hectic work schedule.
And though Frot-Coutaz never knew Brandon Tartiko" personally, she has worked with people who knew him. "He sounds like he was incredibly inspiring, charismatic, creative, a risk-taker," she says, adding that she does spend time thinking about her own legacy.
"In life we all want to have a legacy. Life's pretty short, at some point you want to leave something behind," she says. "I'm still searching for it. I think it's very important. If you don't leave a legacy, than what is it all about?"
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