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April 30, 2009

Q&A: Simon Cowell -- TV's X factor talks 'Idol,' future plans, Coke, Kara, Obama, Twitter and more


Simon Cowell crowd Simon Cowell recently sat for a wide-ranging interview where the "American Idol" judge offered his characteristically strong opinions on the show's format changes this season (including fourth judge Kara DioGuardi), other U.S. reality shows, Twitter, CDs by "Idol" contestants, his desire to launch another music competition series (like his British hit “The X Factor”) and on why he sometimes finds his own job "absurd."

THR/James Hibberd: Who do you think will win?

Simon Cowell: Either Adam (Lambert) or Danny (Gokey). You can tell by the studio audience. When you watch the show tonight, you’ll feel exactly what we've felt the last few weeks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Is there too much product placement?

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.

One thing “Idol” has never done is release the vote tallies. Do you think doing 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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

CONTINUE TO PART 2: Cowell on Gordon Ramsay, listening to music by ex-contestants, 'Idol' copycats, Obama, Twitter and his regrets 


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