American Idol Judge Simon Cowell's Biggest Talent: Selling American Idol
Even when you know it's basically the British brat's job to say how great the coming season of American Idol will be -- a job paying upwards of $150-million a year, if you believe his boasts during a recent 60 Minutes interview -- you still believe him when he says the crop of new contestants is among the show's best ever.
"I think its' one of the strongest years we've had in a long, long time," he told journalists assembled for a telephone conference call earlier today. "It's younger. I think the talent is more current. They're more interesting as people. (Fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul) went on record last year with that nonsense saying this is going to be one of the best years. I didn’t go along with that. I didn’t believe it. I will go on record saying I think is one of the best years we’ve ever had. And if I say (so) the other two are only going to agree with me, anyway."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Cowell one of the most powerful people in the TV and music businesses: a load of arrogance and confidence leavened by the fact that he generally knows what he's talking about.
Though some critics accused Idol of losing its spark last year, the ongoing Hollywood writer's strike assures that even more folks will be eyeballing the blockbuster show when it debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday. And even though Cowell loosed a few howlers during his half-hour talk with reporters - Idol exposes the reality of the music business. Really? - he also offered a little insight on the circus to come. Questions and some answers have been heavily edited.
Cowell: "I saw I think 30 minutes of the first episode…A lot of it was the Paula I know, which is why I stopped watching. I have it in real life, so I don't need to watch it on TV again. I only witnessed her being kind to her assistants; they seemed to get on well. As for the crying, I saw a lot of that. But I saw that within the first hour of working with her. She's an emotional girl. I think it was very exaggerated in the edit."
Why have last year's top finishers struggled to sell records and Idol live tour tickets?
"Last year, it just wasn't one of our best seasons. You get that on all of these type of competition You get that on all of these type of competition shows. You get great years and then you get not so great years. The good news is that what we’ve seen from the audition show, this is a much better season than last year. If it was worse, then I think we would have had a problem. It’s altogether a better year. We always say on the show: We can’t guarantee that we’ll find a superstar, but we’ll do our best. But we’re at the mercy of who turns up or the auditions.”
Do you think Idol will grow into an even bigger hit because it lacks competition this year?
"I've gotta be honest with you, I think that's happened for the last two or three years. Where we are, nobody seems to want to put anything up to compete with us. We heard a year or so ago that Dancing with the Stars was thinking about going up against us (on ABC), which I think would have been a mistake. That's the only time we've ever really heard anyone would ever try to compete with us. So I think we're in the same position as we were last year and year before. I think the most important thing is that the show is got to look better. It's got to be more fun as a show. It absolutely comes down to the content which we provide to viewers."
Were you surprised when past winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks lost their record deals recently? "Based on their record sales, I'm not surprised, to be honest. Taylor, I've always gone on record saying I genuinely don't think he was the best singer of that year. He was the most popular person, I didn't think we was the best singer. I'm not overly surprised because that happens. We've always said from day one, American idol is a reality show. And being a reality show we reflect the reality of the record business, which is: It's unpredictable."
Producer Nigel Lythgoe said the Idol judges have a "childish, pitiful" relationship with each other. What do you say? "Was he talking about his relationship with us? Let me return the compliment to Nigel, because that's how I would describe my relationship - or our relationship with him: childish and pitiful…I'm kidding by the way. It can be a little bit acrimonious at times. That's what happens when you've worked together for seven years - you get on each others nerves. You disagree with each other. But we're not going to sit there like three robots and be told what to do. I think we all find the audition sequence harder and harder as years goes on. It's torture. And it gets on your nerves. Therefore, you become a bit argumentative and emotional. But its not pitiful. And certainly someone in his position shouldn't be describing us like that."
Do you ever regret a particularly cutting remark? "I'll be honest with you, there are certain times when you watch the show back - and I haven't seen the audition shows yet - you're going to watch it back and hate yourself for what you've said at the time. And that's partially because you don't know the person's back story normally before they walk into the room. For all I know their dog had died an hour ago and they're singing this in memory of the dog and if I or anyone else is rude, you sit back and watch the whole story unfold and its horrible. It's also partly due to the fact that you get very bored and you will say things at times which can be a bit harsh. At the end of the day, every person who comes on the show, they have seen American Idol. They know what they're in store for if they're not a very particularly good singer. I hope most of what we say is meant as either constructive criticism or just being honest: don't give up your day job."
Is it possible that the show's problem in finding fresh talent last year was also partly the judges fault? Did people slip through the cracks at auditions? "In terms of letting people slip through the cracks. I'm sure it does happen. You have to make a snapshot decision. Up until the point where we have the final 12, we're normally listening to up to 100 singers a day. So you probably will make mistakes. It's not a science. It's basically instincts and emotion. You're trying to second guess what the public will like."
Has the show evolved over the years? "I think and I hope this year you will see a slight evolution on the show, in so much as we've found more interesting people, more interesting artists. And regardless of what happened last year, when you add up all the record sales over the years, it's an incredibly important vehicle for people who want to be successful and under normal circumstances can't get a record deal. The idea of Carrie Underwood walking around with out a record deal is staggering. When you look at what she's achieved. That's the importance of the show and the main reason we carry on making American Idol."
Are your blunt comments cruelty or necessary honesty? "I hope over the years people a) realize that I know what I'm talking about and secondly, that its actually more cruel to lie to someone and give them false expectations rather than tell them the truth. What we've done with American Idol I guess is show them how the record business operates. You've got to be honest with people If they're hopeless, no point in saying take a couple of singing lessons and you'll become Mariah Carey. I'm quite comfortable with most of what I've said on the show throughout the years. That's all part of the fun of the show. At the end of the day we're not making the final decisions on American Idol, it's the general public. And I'm comfortable with that."
Did mediocre contestant Sanjaya nearly wreck American Idol? "Looking back, I don't think it did any harm because he didn't win. There was a point -- I'll be honest with you -- about halfway through, where it did occur to me after some absolutely horrific performances and people kept him in, that we might have a problem. I know at the time the votefortheworst Web site and Howard Stern genuinely believed they had a huge influence over the show, which I don't think they did in hindsight. So there was a point when I was a bit worried. Now I look back and laugh - it was harmless. He had a run, he had some fun he was actually a very nice kid, very polite afterwards and I don't think any damage was done."