American Idol is currently airing its 10th season on Fox, and the most notable change from years past is the absence of outspoken judge Simon Cowell. However, Simon Cowell will be back on Fox in the fall with his brand new show The X Factor, which will begin auditions in Los Angeles on March 27. The show is based on the hit British show The X Factor which has been a phenomenal success since first airing in 2004. You can CLICK HERE for more information about the show, where singers from across the country will compete for a $5 million record deal with Syco and Sony Music. Simon Cowell recently held a conference call to discuss his new series and here's what he had to say.
It seems like everything you touch turns to gold. What do you think that you have that enables you to do so well at spotting talent like Leona Lewis and doing unique programs like The X Factor?
Simon Cowell: Well, thank you. Thanks for saying that. Well, first of all, I put my trust in the audience, I trust my gut feeling, I work with talented people, and essentially what I try to do now - because I have a choice - is I make shows I'd like to watch. We've been thinking about this show for a few years now, about whether we should do it or not do it in America, and we made the decision last year that we were going to do it. Now that I have my head around it, I'm excited and I think we're going to do something different. I'm excited about it. The stakes are high, but I have no idea what it's going to look like until I start shooting.
Simon Cowell: Well, I'm a massive fan of Paula. It's quite unusual - when you work with somebody for as long as I did with Paula, we were friends on the show for I'd say 80% of the time, and then interestingly, afterwards we've been in regular contact. So I'm a big fan of hers. I'm not going to say today on this call who we are going to confirm or who we're not going to confirm because the truth is, we honestly haven't made our minds up yet. We're talking to a number of people, and I expect to make an announcement I would say within three to four weeks - it might be a little bit longer, I'm not sure, as to who the panel are going to be.
That having been said about the judges, do you think it's important to have a British presence? There's been talk about you having Cheryl Cole or somebody.
Simon Cowell: It's interesting because I've never thought about whether it should be British or American. I think it comes down to who I think is interesting, but the most important criteria for this show is the commitment and the expertise each person offers. On this show, when you reach the live part of the show, each judge is going to mentor three finalists each, and that means you have to work with them up to five or six days a week. I need to find someone who's willing to make that commitment, because it is hard work. You are deciding on all of their material, how they're going to perform on the night, you have to have a relationship with them, and I also think it's really, really important, for me, that I have people I can trust in terms of their expertise, their gut feeling. That's why it's a difficult decision, when you're putting a team around you. I also think it's important on a show like this that you have people who are very competitive with each other. Essentially, the judges are taking part in this competition as well as the competitors. You want somebody who is competitive. That's why the British/American thing, it's not the most important thing; it's who I'm hoping the American audience will find interesting and actually know what they're talking about. It also helps that they're cute.
I'm delighted the show is coming to America. Obviously, in the U.K. you get an audience share of, what, 65%, 70%, and the finale's the biggest TV event of the year, but if you get those kinds of figures over here you're looking at 75 million, 85 million viewers, something like that? Even half of that share would be around 40 million viewers. The potential audience being so huge - and I personally think it'll be a big hit - can you talk a little bit about why you decided to bring it to America?
Simon Cowell: You know, it's interesting. When we started the show seven years ago we had, I think, about eight or nine million people watching the final, and we have 50 million or 60 million people living in the U.K., and that was a lot. Then this year we got 20 million people watching. I never predicted when I stared that we would get those kinds of numbers. I think the same thing applies to America, which is it's impossible to predict the size of the audience. The most important thing is I know you have to make a show which is different to what your competitors are doing. It has to be well made, it has to be controversial, interesting. If the U.S. show has some of the same qualities as what we've done in the U.K., then I think it could do really, really well, but I've learned to never take anything for granted. I kind of feel at the moment like I did when we were launching American Idol: I was excited about the show, I was excited about the prospects, but I hadn't a clue whether it was going to be a hit or whether we were going to be kicked out of the country after three weeks. I remember the network put a one-month break clause in the house I was renting, which shows at the time I don't think they were particularly convinced either. The important thing is, don't take anything for granted. All you can do, which is what I'm going to do, is I'm going to give it 110% effort and I'll do everything I can to make it the best show I possibly can. Then you hope the viewers like it.
If I could just jump to the announcement of the record deal, with today's climate in the industry, were you at all nervous that maybe that's too high of a deal?
Simon Cowell: Yes, and I think you should be nervous. The reason we decided to do this was to show the people who are auditioning for the show that, like I said in my press announcement, sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is. By putting up that kind of prize money, it's a massive, massive risk, but it's also an incredible incentive. I think it puts everybody, rightly, under an enormous amount of pressure, because I didn't want to go into this show without feeling a certain amount of pressure. With pressure, you have to find a star. I also did it because I believe I can find a star. You know, I'm nervous, but I'm also confident that it was the right thing to do. I think it should be a life-changing prize. Just to be clear, this is not dressed-up $5 million; this is a guaranteed $5 million payable to the winner. The recording costs, the marketing costs, the video costs are completely separate to that. It will be paid over five years, $1 million a year for five years, and on top of the Sony label getting behind the artist, we will also be offering financial support for the winner so they don't have to invest their money, look after their money, because that's a lot of cash.
I was curious, actually, which specific Sony label will this prize be going through?
Simon Cowell: It's a good question, actually. The answer to the question is that I don't think we should be guaranteeing at the moment to anyone. There are a range of labels across Sony. They are specialists in separate kinds of music. I can remember, as an example, Clive Davis calling me about Leona Lewis when she was in the U.K. competition - she hadn't won at that point - basically saying, "I want to get behind this girl. I think she's a star," and he was the natural choice. I think to be fair to the artist, we have to approach this in exactly the same way, which is whatever division of Sony is most supportive and can offer the most expertise to the artist, that's the label we're going to choose.
Is it based on the type of music that person performs?
Simon Cowell: Exactly. You're 100% right.
I remember hearing when you first started Idol that you were nervous about how American audiences would react to you and what you do. You've been on Idol for a while, you've seen how that translation works, and this sounds kind of weird, but I think we've seen with MTV and Skins how it can go off the rails, the translation of British to American. I wonder: what have you learned about what American audiences like, and how will that be reflected in what you do on The X Factor?
Simon Cowell: That's a very good question. I think we had exactly the same issues when we brought Idol over to America in the first place, and why initially I was hesitant about doing the show, because I didn't want there to be lots of rules and lots of people at the network saying this is what you can do, this is what you can't do. With this show, the format is a fairly simple format, which is, it's open to all ages, we allow groups to compete, but it has to be, essentially, an all-American show with the commitment being to American talent. You know, I managed to do it twice. I did it with American Idol; I did it with America's Got Talent. They both felt all-American and I'm confident that I can do the same thing with The X Factor. The reaction I've had from American people who've managed to watch the U.K. show has been very, very positive, and that's one of the reasons why we decided to bring the show to America. But like I said before, I don't take anything for granted.
Do you think there's too much made of the differences between the two audiences, British and American?
Simon Cowell: Yes. You know, I do believe that. I think a star is a star. Interesting TV is interesting TV. I don't think you need to over-think it. Like I said to someone on the earlier call, my commitment is to find the best producers I can to make the best possible show. I've seen it happen also with Dancing with the Stars. I think the American show is brilliant. They did a fantastic job, and I'm sure ABC had the same reservations when they were thinking about bringing it over. If you bring a good format with great producers and a commitment to try to do something different, then I think you have half a chance. I put my trust in the American audience. I have done that for ten years and will continue to.
The release we have, there's a quote by Mike Darnell, but it does say that you will be working both behind and in front of the camera. So does that mean you are going to be a judge, and if you are not or you won't comment on that, what kind of in-camera role would you see for yourself?
Simon Cowell: Well, when I'm described as an executive producer, you have a vision for the show, and that's very important before you start because you have to, in your mind, make the kind of show you want to make, you have a view on that, and I have some strong views on that in terms of what it will look like, why it will be different to other shows, the kinds of people who I'd like to work alongside me. Once the show goes into production, I become a judge and I have to put my trust into the producers' hands. That's effectively how it works in the U.K.
So just to be clear, you are going to be a judge on this show?
Simon Cowell: Yes. Yes, I am.
My question is about the age range and the bottom end of the age cap. I know on American Idol there was some kickback when it said 15-year-olds would be able to audition for this season, so what do you think about the age of 12 for a show like this?
You know, I thought long and hard about this, to be honest with you. I think probably five or six years ago I wouldn't have done it. Through experience, when I worked on Britain's Got Talent and what happened this year on America's Got Talent, there are some incredibly talented young kids out there, and because I work for a record label, over the last 12 months we've started to see a trend of what kids this age are capable of doing, whether they can withstand the pressure. I went on record years ago saying I think it's wrong to have people around this age doing it, and now I think times have changed. You have to make a case-by-case decision based on them as a person, whether they're capable of doing this kind of thing, what their parental support is like. We had to make that decision on Jackie on America's Got Talent runner-up. Once we were satisfied she was happy, the parents were happy, I think it was the right decision, and she's on her way to a very, very successful career. I have started to see a new wave of how these kids are thinking. What's quite interesting is 12-year-olds now, they didn't watch American Idol in the beginning because they would have been about two or three. So they have their own opinions, they know what they're doing, and you look at someone like Willow Smith - there's a trend happening at the moment. I think it would have been wrong to exclude them. Again, I think it makes the competition more exciting, that maybe you're going to find a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old genius performer who could be competing against a 45-year-old, and I like that idea.
Simon Cowell: You know, look, you adapt over the years. I started to cringe over the years when I started to see people being booked as the so-called mean judge and just being gratuitously rude for the sake of it. I don't like that. I have my own style. I like to think that I'm honest. I wouldn't sugarcoat something just to make myself popular. I'm going to try to be consistent to how I've been over the years. I say that mainly because of people you meet in the street, that you talk to, where they say, "We like hearing what you have to say, Simon, because we kind of think the same way as you." So that's the way I'm going to approach it. People know what to expect if I'm on the judging panel, so I don't see things are going to change too much.
Any thoughts on the new Idol judges?
Simon Cowell: Well, I haven't seen a full episode yet. I saw three minutes of a recap last week. I think from what I've seen, from what I've heard, it all seems to be going well. I always thought that would be the case. What I was more concerned about was the ratings falling off a cliff, meaning that that whole genre is now over. I think the good news is that people are still excited about these shows, whether it be that show, Dancing with the Stars, which has definitely gotten better over the years, America's Got Talent, which the ratings have gone up over the years. People, thank god, still like these shows, and that gives me more confidence when we launch ours. I think the important distinction with The X Factor is that it's going to run in the fall, which it has done for seven years in the U.K. I like having these shows on at that time of the year running up until Christmas time. Going back to your original question, I think they've done a good job.
I guess from a mentoring aspect, it's kind of what sets The X Factor apart from a lot of just judging and voting shows. How do you think it adds to the show itself?
Simon Cowell: Well, the reason we replaced Idol with The X Factor in the U.K. to begin with is that I got bored of just judging. I got frustrated when I kept criticizing people's song choices, what they wore or what they didn't do right. I wanted to make a show where I actually, along with my fellow judges, could help the competitors on a weekly basis, because that's what I do in my real job. If you work for a record company you work with the artist on everything - their song choices, their stylists, their choreographers - and it made sense to me that we should do that on a TV show. It's definitely more interesting for me because I have a lot more to do. Secondly, it's an interesting thing, to be judged as well as the competitor. When you lose an artist, part of you has lost as well. When you're artist wins, you win. It really does become incredibly competitive between the judges once the competition starts. In a way, they're more competitive than the artist, because we don't pretend to like each other.
Can you tell me about the live end of things here? It sounds like you guys are auditioning all over the country again, before large audiences, which, as you said in the release, isn't something that has been done before. What's the production end of that like? Do you guys have partners there as well?
Simon Cowell: Well, we made a decision a couple of years ago in the U.K. that I couldn't fit in an audition room with two other people and judge properly. I've done it too many years and I wanted to change things up. So I made a decision that we would change the auditions so that each person or group would now have to audition not just in front of the judges, but in fact 4,000 or 5,000 people in an arena. Essentially, it was supposed to be similar to them doing their first concert. What it does, it really helped me to show who could handle the pressure, who was a good performer, and also, it was vital that I got audience feedback as well. There have been many, many times on these shows when I've hated somebody and I've practically had a mutiny going on behind me, where the audience went crazy that we didn't put them through, and they have changed our minds. I've also seen, for instance with Susan Boyle, how an audience lifted her, and I think they were the ones responsible for turning her into a star. I don't believe Susan Boyle would have gotten through in the old-fashioned audition method. I think it was the crowd and seeing them give her a standing ovation which is what made that clip so special. As I said, it really does help me make a decision because the person you want winning this competition or the group you want winning the competition, you want them to be performing in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people afterwards. I need to know right at the beginning whether they can cope with that. At the same time of where it can be good, obviously it can be brutal as well. If it doesn't go well, it's a very intimidating process. I think it has to be like that.
Are you selling tickets to the big arena shows and so forth?
Simon Cowell: Not for the auditions, no. No. People can come along. What I always say to them at the beginning of the day is, you've watched the show, you think you're as good a judge as me, well now prove it because you're going to be judging this along with me.
I want to know, just to you, the most crucial difference about The X Factor that's going to set it apart from the other shows you mentioned, the Dancing with the Stars and America's Got Talent. What's the most important difference?
Simon Cowell: It's difficult to put into words. I suppose rather like comparing Extreme Makeover: Home Edition with Jersey Shore. I mean, they're both reality shows, but they're very, very different. The X Factor has a craziness about it. There's an unpredictability about it. I would say it's more raw. It's very much more competitive because of the fact that the judges have to mentor. It's more personal because there's a point in the show where some of the finalists go to the judges' homes and each judge will then make a selection as to who's going into the finals. Then other aspects of the live show, which I don't want to give away too much now, you're going to see a very, very different live experience to anything you're used to seeing on American TV. I think it's one of those things - you have to watch it, and then I think you're going to see the difference.
You said that the judges are competitive, so you're going to be mentoring somebody and then critiquing their performance and of course, won't you have a vested interest in being extra tough on the extra two judges' people?
Simon Cowell: Of course, and extra-nice to my own. I think it's amusing, to be honest with you, because we're all experts when we sit together unanimously and just judge. It's a very, very different experience when you have to make a decision and then hear somebody else criticize you. It's funny - it goes back to making up the panel. I have to put people on this panel who I genuinely think could be better than me so it becomes a real competition. Look, when somebody does a great job, you have to be fair. That comes back to the honesty principle I've always abided to on these shows. If they do a good job, they've done a good job. If they've done a lousy job, I think you're entitled to say that they've done a lousy job.
You'll be judging your own?
Simon Cowell: You do actually judge your own, which makes you slightly more biased, but there have been times when I've been critical about my own work, because you want to do a great job every week. It is a very, very different principle, as I said, because it is easy just to make comments. When you've actually had to put the entire performance together yourself and your fellow judges are judging you, it's very intimidating.
I just wanted to know, in your words, in your own words, what is The X Factor?
Simon Cowell: It's an expression we've used over the years. I'd heard so many times about is it the look, is it the voice, and then over the years recently you've seen a different kind of artist emerge. A good example of that is Lady Gaga. Now, God only knows what we would have said to her if she'd have walked into Idol three years ago with a lobster on her head. I don't know, but she's got it. It's an all-around description. It's not necessarily about perfection; it's about having that special something and getting it right at the right time I think is an important part of having The X Factor as well. So that's why, as I said, it was an expression we used. That's why we decided to call the show The X Factor in the end. I suppose it's a broader statement.
I wanted to ask you a question about consensus. You know, 20 years ago probably everyone that won this show, IDOL, or any show like it would go on to be a huge success, but with so much diffusion in the music industry, something you know about, is it possible for there to be consensus anymore? Will the person who wins the first season of The X Factor go on to be a Leona Lewis-type success automatically?
Simon Cowell: Obviously, I hope so. I think if we can't achieve with what I've put on ... find a global star, then I would say we've failed. I can't put it any clearer than that. There is that person or that group sitting in America right now waiting to be discovered and maybe hasn't had the right breaks. You know, I had a similar conversation with somebody right at the start of American Idol. I had no idea whether we were going to find somebody, and then Kelly Clarkson came along. She didn't shine on the first audition. Once she hit the live finals this girl was phenomenal, and is still probably my favorite American Idol contestant, and did go on to succeed in a lot of other countries outside of the U.S. What you want to happen is if that person succeeds in the way that you hope, that you can say, "I was there at the beginning." I think part of the reason why we put this prize money up to $5 million as an incentive and to make the point: we are genuinely, genuinely serious about this, that we believe that there is somebody with that star quality out there and that's why we'd like you to enter this show. What I can also guarantee is that you're going to have the best support around you to make that happen on and off the show.
Do you think after 10 years of Idol and several years of America's Got Talent, there's still a singer somewhere who's been too shy up until now waiting for the The X Factor to come on? Is there a pool big enough in America to provide you with this global star that you seek that hasn't come out from the other shows?
Simon Cowell: One-hundred percent. I say that, and I've always said this on these shows, is you only have to find one. If I didn't believe there was one person who is a potential star sitting in America now, there'd be no point in making this show. I obviously believe there's more than one. One of the biggest criticisms I had over the years were people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who said, "I have what it takes. I haven't been given a chance. I know I have a phenomenal voice, but I haven't had a chance to enter a competition." I used to hear this over and over again. This is why we took the upper age limit off completely. I think we're going to be surprised how much potential talent is out there. I just have a really, really good gut feeling about this. That's what excites me more about doing this show than anything else, the prospect of finding somebody fantastic, and also with this format, helping them to become fantastic.