BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. >> Simon Cowell is back.
Tonight, Cowell — whose acid-tongued criticism during the first nine seasons of “American Idol” turned it into a network TV phenomenon — will return as a judge on an American competition show for the first time in 2-1/2 years when he replaces Howard Stern on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
The “Got Talent” format, which Cowell created and has sold around the world, is a summer stalwart for the network and is heading into its 11th season.
Question: What’s it like being in the “Got Talent” chair versus “X Factor” or “American Idol”?
Answer: I was really confident until I sat in the chair and you kind of go, “Oh God, this is a big show here.” I’m used to being on big shows, but I’m thinking, “I really hope this is going to work.” And for about 10 seconds, I felt nervous. And then this 83-year-old woman in a leotard came on and stood on her head and sang the national anthem and I said, “You know what, I’m home.” And I never looked back.
Q: Why did you want to be on this show?
A: I used to watch these sort of variety shows as a kid. And as much as I like being on a music show, it does get a bit tedious when it’s just singer after singer after singer. On this show — and of course we get singers on there — it’s that surprise factor where literally a box will appear on the stage and you don’t know what’s inside the box or what the act’s going to be.
Q: As far as viewers in the United States are concerned, this is Act 3 for Simon Cowell. Do you still have something left to prove?
A: Yeah, of course. Particularly this year with the end of “Idol,” I’ve been reminded about it a lot. It takes me back to when I first launched the show. Being on a show that big, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’m not going to lie. When we were doing big, big numbers, it was incredible.
Q: Did you learn any lessons from “X Factor”?
A: I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi, and it was called “The Other Guy Blinked.” And we blinked. We thought 12 million (viewers) was bad. Now I’m thinking, “Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.” But we beat ourselves up so much about it, and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million, and I thought 12 million feels terrible.
Q: You basically created the role of the blunt-speaking judge on competition shows. A couple of years after you did it, Donald Trump did it on “The Apprentice” on NBC. When you see him campaigning, do you see a reality TV show judge?
A: People are always drawn to people who speak bluntly. Whether you agree or disagree, you listen. You see the same thing with Bernie Sanders. The guy’s in his early 70s, and every teenage kid is listening to him. I think Donald Trump understood when you’re on TV you have a tremendous platform. We all recognized that years ago. We were all sitting there running record labels years ago, thinking sales are going down, it’s harder to break new artists, and then along comes this train. We all thought we (had) better get on this quick. I always understood the significance — and still do now — the power of television. Nothing can compete with that.