MIPCOM: Simon Cowell Recalls Moment His TV Career Hung in the Balance

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"Literally, I could feel a million knives about to go into my back"

Simon Cowell on Monday recalled the moment when a lackluster first-week debut for The X Factor UK in 2004 put his own reality TV producer career in peril.

"Literally, I could feel a million knives about to go into my back," the man behind One Direction said Monday at MIPCOM, after being asked by Piers Morgan to reveal his most significant career moment. Knowing X Factor UK's fortunes would turn on the second week's ratings, Cowell recalled listening to his phone messages for word from ITV.

"All I could hear was screaming. And I thought that's a happy scream. That was pretty significant," he said. Cowell's Syco Entertainment today produces the global X-Factor and Got Talent TV franchises, with the Got Talent format now being produced in 62 territories and the X-Factor format in 51.

Cowell also revealed a couple aces up his sleeve that have allowed him to transform popular music and TV culture as an entertainment format king. First is his straight-talking style on TV as a talent show judge and in real life.

"You can't treat the audience like idiots. If someone comes on stage and is literally tone-deaf, and I say take a couple singing lessons and you'll be a star, they'd think I was mad," Cowell said of his preference for brutal honesty.

Another ace is a simplistic music taste used to discover superstar talent with mass audience appeal. "In my business, if you guess, I believe you will get it wrong. You have to become the audience permanently," Cowell explained.

Still another career advantage is Cowell's solid ties to broadcasters, and in particular FremantleMedia. "Without Fremantle, I wouldn't be sitting here now," he said during an appearance at the Palais des Festival while in Cannes to receive the MIPCOM Personality of the Year award.

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Cowell said FremantleMedia early on recognized value in combining a TV company and a music company to make a music TV show, rather than rely only on a TV company to make a reality competition show.

He also summed up what his TV talent shows have meant to his career by reading out a text he received Monday afternoon from X Factor singer Ella Henderson about her UK chart-topping debut album. "As a little girl I had a dream and that was to sing with my own music and in my own way," the message began.

"Whatever happens from here, I just have to say I'm so glad to share my music with the world, and for you to be a part of this incredible process.... Here's to the beginning, Ella," the text ended.

Cowell is to receive his MIPCOM tribute at a special ceremony Tuesday evening at the Carlton Hotel.