Q&A: Simon Cowell


In his trailer before a recent episode of Fox's "American Idol," judge and TV producer Simon Cowell sat with The Hollywood Reporter for a wide-ranging interview in connection with THR's annual Reality Power issue (publishing on May 18). Cowell, 49, offers his thoughts on this season's format changes, his desire to launch another music competition series like his British hit "The X Factor," his opinions of other popular reality shows and why he finds his own job "absurd."

The Hollywood Reporter: Who do you think will win "Idol" this season?

Simon Cowell: Either Adam (Lambert) or Danny (Gokey).

THR: How would you rank this season so far overall?

Cowell: The contestants are interesting, they're talented. I think, arguably, with this guy Adam, he could be one of the best we've ever had -- in terms of an out-and-out pop star who could sell all over the world. So in that respect, it's been one of my favorite seasons. Much better than last year. I got bored last year. Just totally, totally bored. It was like judging a bunch of robots.

THR: And if you're bored, then the audience probably picks up on that.

Cowell: I get accused of looking bored, looking around. But if you get to that point, it's because you are. You know, we're not actors. So at a point I get a bit fidgety, because I have the attention span of a goldfish. I get bored very, very quickly.

THR: Do you think next year the producers will continue making tweaks to the show's format?

Cowell: You have to. The minute you start assuming that the audience is very happy to see the same show again, you're dead. Of course, they're going to complain, "Why did you change this? Why are you making these changes?" But the simple truth is, if the show looked now as it did in Season 1, it probably wouldn't be on the air now.

THR: What about the specific changes this year, such as having fewer audition rounds?

Cowell: I think it was probably a good idea. It all depends on your auditions, by the way. If you've got great auditions, great stories, great drama, you could run auditions 52 weeks of the year. But I think when you get to the point where you've run out of stories or interesting people, it is probably best to limit it.

THR: And adding a fourth judge?

Cowell: It has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. I like Kara (DioGuardi) a lot actually. I like the fact that it's somebody new. I'm getting to like her more as the series goes on. I am slightly concerned, however, that it's taking a hell of a long time.

THR: In terms of the judging?

Cowell: Yeah. And sometimes it gets to a point where, if you're the last to go, well, you've got Randy criticizing, Kara criticizes, Paula criticizes and me. And I think what Kara has done with Paula, is she has made Paula a little bit more serious. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

THR: Do you think Kara will be back next year?

Cowell: Who knows? By the way, it wasn't my decision to bring her in in the first place. So the same people who made the decision to bring her in, will probably make a decision whether she stays or not. I'm guessing she'll stay.

THR: But if they came to you and said, "Simon, what do you want?" what would you say?

Cowell: That's a good question. (Pause.) I'd probably keep her.

THR: Every year, there are stories questioning whether Paula Abdul will be back.

Cowell: As long as I'm on the show, she'll be on the show. I could not do the show without Paula. Or Randy. Because it's a team that works. We get on really well. Even Ryan. We get on well. They do a really good job. It's a great chemistry. And that was my only concern when we were talking about the fourth judge. As long as the other three are back, I'm happy. And Paula is hysterical. The fact she gets so upset and worked up. Sometimes I'm sitting there, whispering into her ear, because I whisper absolute nonsense into her ear during the entire performance.

THR: Like what?

Cowell: I make up stories about songs, hoping she'll say it, and sometimes she does. Because there are certain performances where all you think of is like water running out of the tap. Nothing. You could say: "You're dreary, you're boring, you're not going anywhere," (but) you can't keep saying that.

THR: What's the most entertaining thing about the show that doesn't make the broadcast?

Cowell: Oh, behind the scenes on any show would be the best reality show in the world. I mean, what it's like to travel on the auditions, when we go on a plane together, when we hang out, or just the interaction between the dressing room and all that kind of stuff. I'd love to show all that, I just don't think we'd ever work again.

THR: Is there too much product placement on the show?

Cowell: I don't think so. I don't feel that we really are in the hands of the sponsors. Let's put it this way: We don't get any orders. So I've got a Coke cup in front of me. Who cares?
The Coca-Cola moment (segment of the show) is a conversation. I don't feel it interferes with the flow of the show. Let's be honest: To make a show in this day and age, with the production values we have, it's got to a have a little bit of sponsorship and placement.

THR: One thing "Idol" has never done is release the vote tallies. Do you think that would add anything?

Cowell: We do release it on the night of the finale in the U.K. I'd have no problems doing the same thing again. I think people would be interested.

THR: What about having the wild card round? Does it make sense to save people that, in all probability, are not going to win?

Cowell: I think it's a good thing, I really do. Because people like Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, wouldn't have been in the competition without the wild card. What I would've done, and we do it in the U.K., is that we should've given contestants a survival song. In other words, if at any point they are in that position, there's one song in the world that they want to sing, instead of hearing the same song again. And I think that's probably a better idea. We could probably introduce that next year. I think now we've got to a point where we can't change the show too much. But can we bring on another music show? For sure.

THR: Like "X Factor"?

Cowell: Yeah, and maybe it'll be "X Factor," maybe it'll be something new. It's something we've been thinking about ... but I would definitely do it now. I think it has to be sufficiently different. I think that's why I'm answering your question in a roundabout way. Which is, I think the purity of "Idol" works very well, and you don't want to change it too much. It is what it is. But that also enables you, I think, to bring in another format. In the U.K., there is more than one type of music show running throughout the year. And I think the same type of thing could happen (in America), because for the second half of the year, nothing really happens.

THR: So the idea would be Fox doing a music show in the fall to not take away from "Idol" but to complement it.

Cowell: Yeah. I say this because I think there's an awful lot of people who would enjoy another show. I wouldn't compete with "Idol" -- that'd be crazy.

THR: Does Fox seem open to the idea of doing "X Factor"? Has it been discussed?

Cowell: I genuinely don't know whether it would be "X Factor." It just strikes me that there is room for more than one show, but with the understanding that we would protect "Idol" in the second half of the year. It just seems logical as long as it's different from "Idol." You have to look forward to one show one season and then another show afterward.

THR: "X Factor" in the U.K. has done better than "Pop Idol."

Cowell: What it's done, it's done something that others shows haven't done in the past three years. It's grown its audience year-over-year, by quite a significant amount, 10%-15%. I love the show. It's my baby.

THR: How would "X Factor" do compared to "Idol" here?

Cowell: If we have half of the "Idol" audience, we're doing well. I always believe that shows should increase their audience every time you're on. That's just my ego. So "Idol," actually, I think the ratings could go higher. I don't accept the argument of fragmentation or declining numbers. That's bullshit. Super Bowl goes up every year. You've just got to find audiences something interesting. So I like the idea whether we started smaller, that we could build another franchise, based on the fact that an audience would like it and that we've made good TV.

THR: Putting aside whatever Fox offers, what do you ideally want to do after your contract is up after next season?

Cowell: I don't want to be predictable. I can't bear a situation where I know where I'm going to be every day for the next five years. The thought is just too depressing. You have to evolve; you have to change. I wouldn't like the idea that for the next five years, I'd be doing exactly what I've been doing for the past five years. I'd go nuts, bored out of my mind. I like the challenge of launching something new. I love the thrill. Everybody's dying for you to fail. Chances are you will. But it's still fun.

THR: How much of "Idol's" success do you think you are responsible for?

Cowell: If you are on a great format, it makes you better. And if you're better, you make the show better. The two have to work together. This is a very easy show for me to do because it's my business and I understand pop music so I feel very comfortable. So I couldn't really care less whether I was fired or not. Because I always had a good job to go back to. Most people I've met who are on TV, they're nervous that it's all going to be taken away. I don't even think they're enjoying it. Which is pretty odd because it's not a bad life.

THR: Do you think the show would still do well if you weren't on it?

Cowell: I haven't got the faintest idea. Will it last? Yes. Because these shows have lasted for years. It would be a different type of show. Like we said earlier on, we have to move on sometimes. Maybe the show has to move on; I have to move on. But this show, I've always said, whether I'm on it or not, it could run for another 10 or 20 years.

THR: If "Idol" was no longer the most popular show, if it were the second-most or third-most or top five or whatever, would you still want to be on it?

Cowell: Absolutely not! (Laughs.) It's like running a 100 meters and coming in fifth. Well then why bother taking part? Being No. 1 is verging on an obsession with me. I don't like being No. 2. I don't mind when you start being like No. 10, people don't always go on as No. 1. And you've got somewhere to go. But at the point you've reached it, of course you want to stay there. And anybody who says they don't is a liar.

THR: What other TV shows do you watch?

Cowell: I find a lot of the reality stuff boring now. I think I may have to ban all these American composers. This terrible sort of dramatic sort of music, which I hate, on all of them. And I can see the process, where absolutely nothing is happening on the show and it's sort of like they put music behind it trying create something. It's just like, "Oh shut up." So I get irritated by a lot of that.

THR: It's like they're cartoons.

Cowell: Yeah. I think "Dancing With the Stars" is very good. And I'm jealous that we don't own that format because it's a format you can run for years. Other than that, there's not an awful lot. I'm too lazy to get into dramas. I quite like "Mad Men." I don't see a lot of people taking risks; I don't see many people being controversial. So I get bored.

THR: They shoot "Dancing" here too, are you ever tempted to go over there and judge some tangos?

Cowell: Well Bruno (Tonioli) is a very good friend of mine, and we've actually considered one week literally changing shows, without saying anything. I'll sit on his show and he can sit on mine (laughs).

THR: Why don't you think NBC's a cappella show will work?

Cowell: It's going to be boring. Look, you could do an a cappella week on "Idol," maybe, but I think any more than that ... it sounds a bit ... pretentious.

THR: So many music shows have been tried here. Why do the copycats fail?

Cowell: They're not very good. They are rubbish. There are only, thank goodness, a very small team of people who know how to make great entertainment shows. The "Idol" team, one of the best in the world. And then the guys who make "X Factor" and "Got Talent." Genius. We're kind of living in a super brand world. "Idol," "Dancing With the Stars" -- they're super brands. And they get more money invested in them each year. I don't really see how anyone could compete with those now. It's like me trying to compete with "Dancing With the Stars." What's the point? You can't even make it better. I don't think anyone could make "Idol" better.

THR: Have you ever, in your free time, listened to a CD by an "Idol" contestant?

Cowell: No, you just don't do that. If one of the particular songs comes on and I like it, OK. But I think it'd be odd if I was driving around Beverly Hills with the roof off playing a Taylor Hicks album. It's just too weird.

THR: What's something about you that people would be surprised to know?

Cowell: I like dogs. I like stray dogs. I like just sad dogs who are in shelters and need help.

THR: Any movement on getting President Obama to visit "Idol"?

Cowell: Listen, we would put out an invitation on a daily basis. I'd love him to come on, his wife to come on, kids to come on. I could only picture now what it would be like if he actually turned up. He's a rock star.

THR: You're on record saying you don't like Twitter.

Cowell: It's not that I don't like Twitter. I find the notion of certain celebrities going on it slightly weird. And I just compared it to me phoning somebody whom I don't know, and telling them what I had for lunch. And the fact that people think that other people might be interested in you. It's narcissistic.

THR: Have you toned down your criticisms this season at all, do you think?

Cowell: There's a lot of copycat shows, where (judges will) just sit there trying to be a smartass. The audience won't accept that. You have to be in the moment. So to answer your question, "tone it down, tone it up," you don't know until you actually sit there. You've been walking with a headache, you're in a bad mood, and you could be vile. Or you're in a good mood.

THR: When you're onstage and you start to talk and the audience boos, do you ever get the urge to turn around and say, "fuck off"?

Cowell: Yeah, of course. But I think in a way it's fun. I don't think it's done with any malice. I think it's what we call pantomime. They like the fact that they've got a voice. I have a voice. I would love it if one week a contestant were to say to one of us -- probably not to me -- "you don't know what you're talking about."

THR: In terms of looking at the past seasons, is there anything that you regret?

Cowell: No. There are certain things that I might have said that I won't repeat again for obvious reasons, but that's what makes the show good -- it's slightly politically incorrect. The past makes you who you are today. One thing I did regret, and I'll never do it again, is I went onto a Web site and started reading people's comments. Trust me, you don't want to do that. There's a lot of angry people out there who notice everything and they get very upset. And they did kind of affect me for week. Because it was pretty bad and I don't think you should be too aware of yourself. There are times I find what I do is absolutely absurd. And what I try and do to make myself more normal is that I go, "Right, OK, I work for a record label, I'm judging talent, that's it." I'm actually a normal person on the TV show. So the notion that we have all these people around us sometimes is sort of ludicrous. So I think you've got to be quite careful about stylistic nonsense because you could actually forget what you are paid to do.

THR: And what's that?

Cowell: Judge a bloody talent show.