Prime-time television needs another talent competition as much as it needs another rule-breaking cop, unconventional lawyer or wacky neighbor. Yet Fox is launching a U.S. version of the U.K. hit The X Factor, in which unknown singers compete for the chance to win a $5 million recording contract. "What makes this different from all those other shows? Simon Cowell," says Nicole Scherzinger, one of the show's judges, along with Cowell, Paula Abdul and Grammy Award-winning producer Antonio "L.A." Reid. "He's like the Elvis of talent reality shows. And this will be like American Idol on steroids."
Cowell, who will earn $75 million per season, is not just a judge. He's also the show's executive producer and head cheerleader and spent much of the past year traveling around America trying to drum up interest in The X Factor. He explains why he likes this show more than American Idol and how he's learned to love former nemesis Abdul.
TV Guide Magazine: Life was going well for you: You were on a hit show in the U.S. with American Idol, and producing and appearing on the U.K.'s X Factor. Why give up Idol to bring The X Factor to America?
Cowell: Every time I went back to do the show in the U.K., I enjoyed it more and more. And the truth is that if we hadn't done it [here], I think somebody else would have done a version.
TV Guide Magazine: What was Fox's reaction?
Cowell: Their attitude was that lightning doesn't strike twice. Even before we launched in the U.K. [in 2004, people] said, "You won't have another hit." I said, "You haven't seen the show, so how do you know?"
TV Guide Magazine: The British version has generated controversy, with complaints about rigged voting and contestants' vocals being enhanced. Was Fox scared by that?
Cowell: I warned them that this was always a controversial show. Not that I care. It's not like we're drowning puppies. When people are talking about it, then you know you're doing a proper reality show. Things are going to go wrong and get you into trouble and I kind of like that.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you worried about the risk of starting something new?
Cowell: I like the risk. That's part of the thrill. When things are going badly and you have a lot at stake, your adrenaline picks up.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you nervous that the show might not work?
Cowell: I remember driving to the first audition, after all those months of planning, thinking, "Christ, this is it! If it doesn't work..." There were 5,000 people [in the audience] and they didn't know what the format was. Then the first person to audition came up and the audience just got it. They knew they were part of the process. They could contribute to it. I looked at their faces and thought, "Yeah, you like this show."
TV Guide Magazine: What will make The X Factor a success in your eyes? Is it important to you to top American Idol?
Cowell: No. 1 is finding a star [and the show having] unpredictability, controversy and people talking about it in their daily lives. All of these [competition] shows have grown over the years and eventually, I don't know how long it will take, [I want to grow] enough to be the No. 1 show.
TV Guide Magazine: How does the pressure of launching The X Factor compare to the early days of Idol?
Cowell: It was a different feeling with Idol. Nobody knew who I was, and in a way that was quite comforting. No matter what happened, we were going to make the show we wanted to make. But as we got more successful, many more people arrived. So many more people were in the room that you didn't recognize. So many watching you, sending emails. It wasn't fun anymore.
TV Guide Magazine: Was that part of your reason for leaving?
Cowell: I was making a lot of money on American Idol, but I did X Factor because I genuinely felt this was a better show. I personally was happier sitting on a show where older people could compete with younger people who could compete with groups. I just preferred that process. And because I was producing X Factor, it had more of my character on the show. So I'm sure some performers would prefer to be on Idol or The Voice, but you'll see the ones we backed sit better with us.
TV Guide Magazine: On The X Factor, judges act as mentors to the contestants. Why is that important to you?
Cowell: There were things that happened on Idol that could have been avoided if we [judges] had more of a say in what [the performers] sang or did. Tamyra Gray and Jennifer Hudson are perfect examples of people who should have been finalists but because of stupid song choices, they didn't get the opportunity. I'm very frustrated about that even though it was 10 years ago. I was very upset about Tamyra missing out on a chance to compete with Kelly Clarkson, because that would have been one heck of a final.
TV Guide Magazine: What excites you about the first round of auditions? Whom should viewers pay attention to?
Cowell: Auditions felt different from everything we have ever done before. My personal favorite is someone we saw in Seattle and someone who wouldn't normally have entered this kind of show.
TV Guide Magazine: You made headlines right away when Cheryl Cole, the judge you brought over from the U.K. X Factor, was fired and replaced by Nicole Scherzinger. Do you regret how that went down?
Cowell: The truth about that decision was that I had an opening in the U.K. and I took the view — and I didn't mean it as a negative — that I thought Cheryl was happier working on the U.K. show than the American show. She will disagree with that, but as a producer you have to make those decisions. I'm famous for this. I change my mind at the last second because my gut tells me that. Not to say I'm right all the time — because I'm not. I think my regret is just that it became a bigger deal than it was because it went public.
TV Guide Magazine: There's at least one thing Idol and X Factor have in common: Paula Abdul. Why work with her again?
Cowell: I've stayed in touch with her. We met shortly after I knew she wasn't coming back to Idol, and I said we're bringing this show to America and I give you my word you're going to be part of it. When she came to see me six months before we finally made our mind up, she looked amazing. She was totally prepared. She'd done all her research. I looked at her and said, "You don't just want a job. You want to make something out of this." And that's why it was a total no-brainer to bring her in.
TV Guide Magazine: How's the chemistry between you?
Cowell: We have tremendous loyalty to each other. It gets very passionate and you're going to see that. People remember her for the craziness, the arguing, but she knows what she's doing.
For more with Cowell, pick up TV Guide Magazine's Returning Favorites issue, on newsstands Thursday, September 15!