Simon Cowell on Why 'America's Got Talent' Beats 'Idol,' the Downside of "Way Too Many Reality Shows"

Austin Hargrave
“I’m amazed after all these years I haven’t gotten into more trouble. If I said what I’m really thinking, I wouldn’t be sitting here for very long,” says Cowell, photographed March 18 at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena.

As the former 'American Idol' judge returns to TV following a 30-month hiatus, he reveals the key to staying on air and what works about 'The Voice.'

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As soon as Simon Cowell enters the judges' holding room at the Pasadena Convention Center, he's being filmed. Two TV cameras, a still camera and three booms follow him to a corner, where a Dunkin' Donuts banner hangs over a table of coffee and pastries. It's not clear whether Cowell, who's wearing sunglasses indoors, genuinely wants caffeine or is smartly giving some TV airtime to a sponsor of America's Got Talent.

Cowell, 56, knows this building well: In 2002, during the first season of American Idol — the show he helped create and, let's face it, dominated in its prime — the first round of auditions was held here. But NBC's America's Got Talent, he says, "is more fun than Idol. After you've heard 10,000 singers, you think, 'Bring on a dancing dog.' "

For the last 30 months, American TV has had to survive without Cowell on the air. Though he was the star of Idol, he never owned a piece of the show, and in 2010, after nine seasons, he left to launch the U.S. version of The X Factor, which he created, judged on and owned. But Fox canceled Factor soon after its third season ended in late 2013, leaving Cowell in primetime absentia. Then in August 2015, the boy band One Direction (launched on U.K. Factor in 2010), which has sold, according to its label, more than 65 million records worldwide under Cowell's auspices, went on "hiatus." Three pillars of his empire, which has been estimated at $550 million, now are inactive. So why doesn't the British demibillionaire seem worried? "Maybe I should be," he says with a laugh two nights later at his Beverly Hills home. He's not, though, because Cowell had great belief in his abilities even before he'd had any success. And when Howard Stern quit as an America's Got Talent judge, Cowell saw a chance to enhance the highly rated program (averaging 12.5 million viewers in 2015, according to Nielsen), which he owns, by joining as a judge.

"There's obviously way too many reality shows on TV, and a lot of them won't last," he says. "As with anything, if you don't listen to the viewers, you're dead. As soon as our shows go on the air, we're hit with a barrage of information from social media. You think I'm honest? Christ almighty, are they honest on social media. And I like that. I like to do things that make a lot of noise.

"Our only competition now is one show," Cowell explains. That lone show, The Voice, debuted a few months before X Factor U.S. and outlived it, recently standing as the 10th top-rated show of the 2014-2015 TV season. "As much as I sulked about [X Factor getting canceled] — I still do, actually — you have to understand," says Cowell. "The Voice feels very modern. I've never been a fan of artists judging artists, but the panel works so well. They have perfect chemistry, as we did on Idol when it started."

There are 68 versions of the Got Talent format across the world and 56 X Factor shows, which gives Syco Entertainment, Cowell's joint venture with Sony, more than 120 shows in production. Syco also has several films in development, plus three more music shows, and Cowell has plans for a live Las Vegas Got Talent show. He's not crying for Idol, so don't cry for Simon. He wouldn't cry for you.

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