LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Ten years after helping launch “American Idol” into a national pastime, Simon Cowell is again playing the role of underdog.
He’s back auditioning talent for a largely unknown singing competition -- although this time, when “The X Factor” premieres on Fox this fall, it will come with immense hype and expectations.
Cowell, 51, spoke with Hollywood Reporter editor at large Kim Masters for a segment on her KCRW radio show, The Business. An edited transcript follows:
TELL ME WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM LAUNCHING IDOL THAT YOU MIGHT BE PUTTING INTO PRACTICE NOW WITH THE X FACTOR?
Simon Cowell: When we launched the show, which was literally 10 years ago, I was doing exactly the same thing. I was talking to people, talking up the show, which nobody knew anything about. This is when we were trying to get people to audition in the first place and praying that it was going to work and that people would like it. But until people actually showed up, we didn’t know whether the show was going to work or not. And it’s the same principle now. No matter what your ambitions are for one of these shows, it absolutely depends on who the contestants are. If they’re all useless and boring, you haven’t got a show.
THE EXPECTATIONS FOR “IDOL” WERE NOTHING, AND IT TURNED OUT RATHER WELL. THE EXPECTATIONS FOR “X FACTOR” ARE HIGHER, SO WHAT DO YOU DO?
Cowell: Just keep doing what I‘m doing, which is don’t believe the hype, assume you’ve still got to get the message out to people -- maybe those who would normally not enter a show like this. You’ve got to start from the absolute basics because we haven’t filmed a second yet of this new show. I know what it turned into in the U.K. It turned into a really successful, fun show, and I hope the same thing can happen in America.
“IDOL” RATINGS HAVE HELD UP QUITE WELL, AND THE TALENT IS AWFULLY GOOD THIS YEAR. IS IT OVERSTATING IT TO SAY YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT TALENT NOT KNOWING WHAT “X FACTOR” IS AND NOT TURNING OUT THE WAY THEY DO FOR “IDOL” NOW?
Cowell: I said from the beginning I was going to put my money where my mouth is. So we put up, in addition to a recording contract, $5 million to the winner of this show, as a statement to say that I actually did believe that we could find somebody who would become a world star. Because we don’t give out recording contracts like that at Sony any longer.
Cowell: It’s $5 million cash guaranteed. Whether you sell one record or 10 million records, you get $5 million.
DO YOU HAVE A NUMBER IN YOUR HEAD OF WHAT SORT OF RATING WOULD BE A WIN FOR YOU?
Cowell: That’s a very good question. I mean everything over 20 million (viewers) would be a good first week, right?
IT WOULD BE GREAT. “IDOL” AT THIS POINT IS DOING 22 MILLION, DOWN FROM A HIGH OF 31 MILLION.
Cowell: Well, we have a fifth of your population in the U.K., and on the final last year, 21 million people tuned in. It’s a vast amount of people in this small country. But I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve sat in there many, many times during auditions, thinking this is going to be a complete and utter disaster, and then somebody good walks in an hour later.
“IDOL” WAS NOTORIOUS FOR TENSION ON THE SET. IS IT JUST A PART OF SOMETHING THAT BIG AND SUCCESSFUL, THERE‘S GOING TO BE BAD BLOOD?
Cowell: There wasn’t bad blood from my point of view. I was very grateful for the show because otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you today. It did a lot of good for a lot of people, and we all benefited from it. It’s sad when you read about the producers saying, “I‘m glad Simon’s not on the show anymore,” that “it’s better without him,” because you kind of wish that they would say that to your face rather than in public. Because I didn’t feel that when I was on the show. I thought we all liked each other. And that’s why I‘m happy now that I‘m launching something new with people who do want to work with me.
SO THE NOTION THAT YOU WOULD BE HAPPY IF IDOL FAILED WITHOUT YOU, IS THAT JUST FANCIFUL?
Cowell: I never said that. I still talk to Randy (Jackson), Ryan (Seacrest), (producer) Kenny Warwick, (executive producer) Cecile (Frot-Coutaz). A couple of people maybe would have a grudge, but no, we always said that if that show remained popular it means that people are still interested in these types of shows. But we are competitive with each other, which is healthy. Each show wants to do better than the other. But it’s not just “Idol,” it’s “Dancing With the Stars,” it’s Mark (Burnett)’s new show, we’re all competitive with each other. But that’s a good thing.
I DO MISS YOU AS A JUDGE ON IDOL. NOBODY IS SAYING THE WORDS THAT YOU USED TO SAY, WHICH IS “THAT WAS A HUGE MISTAKE” AND “YOU‘RE PROBABLY GONNA BE GONE.” DO YOU WATCH?
Cowell: I watched it a couple of weeks ago. And it was interesting. I was watching it with some friends. And for a moment, it’s like you’re on the show and somebody’s singing and you want to say something, and then suddenly you realize you’re not on the show and you’re listening to somebody else. It’s a really odd experience. But they genuinely seem to be happy and the audience seemed to like it so I guess everyone’s happy.