EXCLUSIVE: Simon Cowell tells me that Fox has promised it will spend the same amount on the U.S. version of his The X Factor talent contest that the UK programme costs to produce — $2.4 million. Next year, Fox will broadcast it and American Idol in 2011 with Idol running from January to May, and The X Factor airing from September to December. Idol has been the biggest programme on American TV for the past 8 years, and is understood to contribute $200M-$300M to Fox network profits every year. So Cowell, 51, is feeling the pressure of matching that success. Meanwhile, the 7th UK cycle of his X Factor is costing ITV £50 million to make — but earns £72 million in revenue through a mixture of advertising (£50 million), sponsorship (£10 million), phone-line revenue (£5 million), the live tour (£5 million) and merchandise (£2 million). It is estimated that Simon Cowell’s production company Syco, co-producer Talkback Thames, and broadcaster ITV split the £22 million profits between them.
With a personal fortune estimated at £165 million, Cowell just signed his next £100 million 3-year deal to keep Got Talent and X Factor on UK TV. And I’ve learned that Cowell’s Syco also is developing a game show with links to the UK national lottery; the idea is to produce scratch cards that will let viewers join in at home for big cash prizes. Right now, it’s difficult to overemphasise how important The X Factor has become in the UK national consciousness because of he incessant chatter on radio, TV, and Fleet Street. I caught up with Cowell while he was preparing for Saturday night’s 2 1/2-hour show which peaked at 13.2 million viewers with a 51% audience share:
Deadline London: What changes are you going to make to the U.S. X Factor so that it’s different to the show we see over here?
Cowell: I said to everybody the other day, with the American show, just think blank sheet of paper. Don’t make any promises, don’t make any predictions. Go in with a blank sheet of paper right now. I can feel a change in the air. While everybody’s going left, we’re going to be going right.
DL: What do you mean, there’s a change in the air?
Cowell: Look, I’m not going to tell people in advance what we’re doing. When you’re making a reality show, you can’t even plan a week ahead now. So we’re hopefully going to be in sync with what’s happening in the States at the time. I like to try and make as many decisions as late as possible. What I will say is that it will be like nothing else you’ve seen before on American TV, I guarantee you that. There are a lot of surprises in store, there’s going to be a lot of surprises. But I’m going for it.
DL: How would you describe what the new show’s going to be like for U.S. viewers used to American Idol?
Cowell: Zero rules. Because I can’t bear rules. For instance, I’ve never liked the idea you have to be a certain age to be a pop star. I like the idea that anybody can enter, anybody can compete. And obviously the fact that groups can compete as well as individuals. They haven’t had that on American TV before. I thought long and hard about whether to bring the show over to America or not. The show’s done so well all over the world, and I think to myself ‘Is this room for one more show?’ What’s never happened in America before is a big talent show that runs up to Christmastime. The US show will run from September to December next year. We’re putting a lot of resources behind it. But the main thing is that we’re going to America because there’s a lot of talent in America and there’s a lot of people over the age of 30 who want to get to these shows as well. It should be a 14-year-old competing against a 50-year-old competing against the next ‘N Sync. That to me is an interesting show because it’s got a variety of contestants. And we are going to scour the whole country to make sure that the whole of America is aware of the show and is given the chance to audition in as many different places as possible.
DL: How much is the U.S. version going to cost to make?
Cowell: Each UK programme costs around $2.4 million to produce each week. When we spoke to Fox we needed their assurance they were going to back it financially. All the money goes on screen. It’s not about paying for celebrities; it’s about money going on screen so that it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before on TV. Fox gave me its assurance that’s it’s backing the show all the way. We’re building a studio in Hollywood that’s going to seat 2,500 people. It’s going to look huge. It’s three times the size of the UK X Factor stage show.
DL: There’s been a lot of press speculation that you’ve already decided that Brit pop star Cheryl Cole, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and even the UK’presenter Dermot O’Leary are definitely coming over to the U.S. version. What’s the truth?
Cowell: Genuinely, nobody has been booked for the show. The only person that’s been booked is me. We’re trying to keep it as open as possible. People approach me to be on it all the time. It’s not about booking well-known people it’s putting together a panel that hopefully Americans will relate to and like. There will be some surprises, genuinely some surprises.
DL: One name that I’m told you wanted for a judge was P Diddy. But he wasn’t interested because he didn’t have ownership of the show.
Cowell: No, he wasn’t in the mix. Even this week two people came forward totally out of the blue. It’s a great platform. You want them there for the right reason. When we started these shows, it wasn’t about the judges it was about the contestants. I’m trying to go back to basics here and say, “Hey look, this is a show that’s about giving as many people as possible a shot, giving them the best possible platform a shot.” It’s all about finding one person. I’ll give you one example: I was doing Idol one year and it was going okay and then Carrie Underwood walked in and I remember thinking, she’s going to win and she’s going to become the biggest-selling recording artist we’ve ever found. And I called it right. You’ve got to be alert to that. That’s why on the U.S. show, we’re going to tell the whole of America to turn up and audition.
DL: The UK X Factor and the U.S. X Factor are still both due to take place at the same time next Fall. What are you going to do? You can’t be in two places at the same time.
Cowell: You’re going to be surprised by what we’re going to announce. I’ve got a little plan.
DL: Will you be taking your core team with you over to the States or are you assembling a new team?
Cowell: Both. We’ve got new people on board and we’re taking some of our people from over here too.
DL: What can you tell me about the third show Syco’s planning for ITV after X Factor and Got Talent, your new game show?
Cowell: We haven’t sold the show yet and it’s one of those concepts that if I tell you about it, somebody else is going to come along and steal it. I have to be very careful about what I say in advance because the minute you announce something, somebody else comes along and pinches it. And I don’t like to hype these things – if they work, they work. I want the public to discover them for themselves.
DL: Ellis Watson, your Managing Director, has said Syco doesn’t want to become a TV producer like Endemol just churning out unscripted formats.
Cowell: But I do want to be like Endemol. If we’re half as successful as Endemol, I’ll be very very happy. What we do is that we’re very careful about taking anything out of development because there’s a lot of attention on these shows now. Broadcasters spend a fortune on them. The important thing is that the public likes it. When you’re used to the numbers we’ve had, we’ve got to be careful about what we do so we can repeat these sizes of audiences again. When we launched Got Talent, the first review I saw of it was the worst review I’ve ever seen in my life. And I really did worry about whether this was going to work or not. But we’d never hyped it in advance and the public, thank God, liked the show. When I first started doing these shows all I was concerned about was getting recording artists. Then about 2 or 3 years into it I realised I loved making TV. Everything we’ve got in development they’re shows that I love making. Honest to God, we never thought when we were starting out this was going to be a phenomenon. It was always about putting the money on screen and reinvesting in the show.
DL: But you’ve got a problem because you have to keep outdoing yourself each season in terms of production values.
Cowell: That’s why I keep telling the broadcasters, it’s not about us, it’s about making sure the audience likes the show more and more. That’s why we need more resources, because we need more people. It’s about throwing our weight behind what’s on screen, what do we need to make it more spectacular, more fun? It’s about bang, that’s the buzz. There are a lot of competition shows out there on TV. But I don’t look at the competition; it’s about respecting your audience.
DL: You’ll be running four shows simultaneously next year with the U.S. and UK versions of X Factor and Got Talent. You’ve spoken about having this tsunami of work hanging over you the whole time.
Cowell: And it’s not just America and Britain. China’s Got Talent exploded this year and South Asia’s becoming a big market for us. But I keep telling our team over and over again, forget the hype — it’s all about respecting the audience and looking after the contestants. That’s our job.