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Interview: Simon Cowell hasn't watched 'Idol' in years, psyched to judge 'America's Got Talent'

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Friday, January 29, 2016

Simon Cowell has not watched "American Idol" in years but plans to be at the series finale April 7, schedule permitting.

"When I was on holiday last month, I had dinner with Nigel Lythgoe, who used to produce the show" and will be producing the series finale, said Cowell in a phone interview Thursday. "We were laughing over some of the memories. He said, 'You've got to do something.' We're trying to make it work. I want to be there. It's going to be a big night. All of us should be there."

Cowell, after three years off American TV, returns this summer as a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent," which has an open call in Atlanta Saturday, January 30. It's not well known but Cowell is an executive producer on the show and was very much the impetus behind its launch on NBC in 2006. "AGT" has consistently been the No. 1 summer show for years (except maybe that one year "Under the Dome" in 2013 was all the rage.)

If you want to try out for "America's Got Talent" open auditions in Atlanta, they will be held at the Omni Hotel in CNN Center. Doors open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Saturday. Details here.

I spoke with Cowell about Terry Fator, Howard Stern, Ryan Seacrest and what he wants more out of "AGT" this season.

Q: You’ve been involved behind the scenes with “America’s Got Talent” since the beginning.

Cowell: I came up with the idea of the show 12 years ago. One day in my kitchen watching another talent show, some girl was singing so badly, I actually thought to myself, 'I'd rather watch dogs dancing!' Looking back all those years ago, it was just a fun idea. It was very difficult to sell. But we were fortunate someone at NBC bought into it. America was the first country to go for it. Now it's all over the world. [He also judges "Britain's Got Talent," which discovered Susan Boyle in 2009.]

Q: Who really stands out to you among the talent from "America's Got Talent"?

Cowell: The first winner Terry Fator [the singing comic and ventriloquist, now a staple in Vegas]. It's incredible. When we narrowed down the finalists, I spoke with each individual to give them advice. I had a phone call with Terry. He told me the story of paying to do a show in a 1,000-seat theater. One person turned up. He really needed this break. I said, 'You just have to wear a decent suit.' I don't know if that made much of a difference but I love that we were able to help people like that who have real talent and needed that break. He's now the third highest paid comic in the world. It's a dream come true.

Q: You’ve been judging "Britan’s Got Talent" for years. How different is judging that from "America’s Got Talent"?

Cowell: If it's anything like my "American Idol" experience, it's going to be a hoot. Those early years on 'Idol' were some of my most fun years of my life. It was unbelievable. Every so often you get this little gem like Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia or Carrie Underwood. It makes it all worthwhile. I'm experiencing the greatest confidence we'll find someone great.

Q: How does it feel getting back on TV in America as a judge again? [The last time he was on TV here was "The X Factor" in 2013.]

Cowell: I'm looking forward to it. I like the guys at NBC. I've worked with them for a long time. I like the panel. When I was doing some production work with them in America, I enjoyed working with them. Hopefully, the difference I can make for the show is that we should and can attract better music talent. We found one good one in Jackie Evancho. Amazing girl. But it hasn't been our strong suit. The message we want to send out that this is a credible place for singers to audition compared to some other shows. Take Susan Boyle. She has sold 20 million albums with that audition. That's what we want to improve.

Q: Do you think the departure of "Idol" will help "AGT" achieve that?

Cowell: Yes, I do. Obviously. The fewer shows on, the better. Without being rude, 'The Voice" hasn't actually produced many stars. I'm competitive in terms of wanting the best people to come on our show. We give them a better shot.

Q: I'm sure NBC will love you saying that.

Cowell. Yeah, well.

Q: What do you think Howard Stern did for the show?

Cowell: I think it was a very important stamp of approval. You wouldn't automatically tie Howard with a show like this. It was good for him. We saw a different side of Howard you wouldn't normally associate him with. He became very emotional. He gave the show an edge. We are different in terms of what we like. He likes stand-up comedy more than I do.

Q: How about Heidi?

Cowell: From my observation, she's slightly nuts.

Q: Mel B?

Cowell: I've worked with her before. She's volatile but always interesting.

Q: And Howie?

Cowell: He is one of the funniest people I've ever met. For me, he's the heart and soul of the show. He loves every single person who auditions.

Q: Howard forced you guys to move to New York. I hear it's going back to Los Angeles, right?

Cowell: We are moving back. Change is good. Secondly, logistically, it is way easier to produce the show in L.A. than New York. Everyone basically has to travel to New York to do it. I don't think it's a bad thing taking it to different parts of the country. [There are no plans this year though to do auditions with the judges in different cities like they have in the past. "AGT" has shot episodes at both the Fabulous Fox Theatre and Cobb Energy Centre in past years.]

Q: As a judge, do you feel like you’ve gotten softer, tougher or stayed about the same?

Cowell: I think you personally always have to retain your sense of humor. If you lose your sense of humor, you'd literally go mad. Some of the crazy stuff you see. I just finished seven or eight days of filming in the U.K. Luckily, we found some great people along the way. But it was like a horror show. You have to trust your own opinion. No one is an expert at everything. But you have to make a call. You have to think if this is a person the public will like. Can this person make a career? And what sort of advice can we give the contestant during the show?

Q: Now that you have some distance from Idol, have your feelings toward the show changed?

Cowell; It was like having an old friend you used to be friendly with but now you're not so friendly. But still, it brings back good memories. It's now a very different show than when me, Randy, Paula and Ryan did it. It was much more naive. What we started was a very funny show to watch. Sometimes you don't want to sully that memory seeing someone else do it.

Q: So my guess is you haven't watched it in awhile.

Cowell: I haven't seen it in years.

Q: Do you think this is the right time for "Idol" to leave the airwaves?

Cowell: It's very difficult to make decisions like that. I was so emotionally tied to the show and then I wasn't. It's kind of not my business anymore whether they keep it going or not. It doesn't make a difference to my life. For me, it was an incredible introduction and a fantastic opportunity to come to work in America and get to know America and Americans. It was an amazingly positive experience. I loved it. It made me confident about doing this show now because there's something about "America's Got Talent" that reminds me of when I used to do "Idol." There's still a certain innocence about the show.

Q: How is Nick Cannon different as a host from Ryan Seacrest?

Cowell: Nick is one of the finest people you'd ever work with. He's so charming and funny. But I'll give him a hard time. That's what I'm there to do. I'm sure he'll do the same with me. We'll make it a fun atmosphere.

Q: You loved to tease Ryan.

Cowell: Every day! Every time he opened his mouth, you could say something back. Working with Nick will be different. He's goofy. I'm happy to work with him.

Q: Nick can dance and sing and tell jokes. Ryan admits himself he pretty much can host and not much else.

Cowell: He has no talent beyond presenting. Having gone out with him, he's really socially awkward. He never speaks to you. He's actually very shy. He'll try to tell a joke and there's literal silence.

Q: Do you think "The X Factor US" proved American couldn't absorb three music competition shows at the same time?

Cowell; I always thought 'The X Factor' is the best show. It's got more depth. The problem was, it was on in the fall competing with football and baseball. And you're competing with dancing shows and other reality competition shows. How much can people take in a year? If the 'X Factor' had taken over for the 'Idol' slot, it would have been a different story.

Q: You did create Fifth Harmony.

Cowell: We did well with those ladies. That's what I set out to do. When I look at the ratings, particularly season one, we pulled in 12.5 million viewers. I think we may have set ourselves up too high.

Q: I remember you expected 20 million.

Cowell: That was my fault when I said 20 million. Today, I'd be thrilled with 12.5 million. We've had offers to bring it back on other networks. Maybe at some point, I will come back when there's less competition.


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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.