In a rousing reunion of old cronies, Simon Cowell was interviewed on the grand stage at Mipcom this evening by Piers Morgan for the Personality of the Year keynote. When Morgan came out to introduce Cowell, the former CNN host quipped, “Wow, I haven’t had an audience this big for quite a while. Well, I haven’t had any audience for quite a while.”
Friends for 25 years and former colleagues, the pair dashed through Cowell’s now historic career, which has spawned the Got Talent and X Factor franchises as well as making stars of Susan Boyle and One Direction, among others. Among the most salient moments were when Cowell said he thinks he and Fox “gave up too early” on the U.S. version of The X Factor which was cancelled after three seasons. “The one thing I do know because I work in the music business, is that X Factor is the best music format in the world and it only takes one artist, whether it’s a Susan Boyle or a One Direction, and the whole thing turns on its head. So I haven’t given up on X Factor America yet.” Cowell is currently appearing on The X Factor UK which is in its 11th series and just this Sunday bested rival Strictly Come Dancing in the overnights for the first time this fall.
Looking back over his career, Cowell recalled that he had no notion that he would end up where he is today atop a music, TV and film empire. He only knew when he left school that he had enjoyed going to the movies with his dad when he was young, buying his first record — The Beatles’ She Loves You — and the family getting its first color TV. “It was one of those three that I wanted to work in.”
After a rough time as a record label exec, Cowell said he learned: “No matter what they tell you, if you are going to work in film, music or TV, there’s only two things that really matter: stars and hits. You have both and I promise you, you build a business.”
After Cowell appeared as a judge on ITV music competition Pop Idol, he called up Morgan in 2004 and told him there was a gap in the TV market around the world. Per Morgan, he said, “Well, there’s all these singing shows, but there’s no all-round TV talent show.” He went on to explain his idea for the Got Talent format. A first attempt at ITV in Britain didn’t pan out, but six weeks later, Cowell sold rights to NBC who wanted to repackage it as America’s Got Talent. Since Cowell couldn’t be in it because of a conflict with his work on American Idol, Morgan says he told him, “I need someone as evil, arrogant and obnoxious as me and your name immediately sprung to mind.” Morgan went on to appear on America’s Got Talent. Britain’s Got Talent followed and a Got Talent version now airs in 67 countries.
Morgan ran down some of Cowell’s other accomplishments, including selling 350M records, having TV shows that air in 200 countries, and grossing $1.5B for Sony from Got Talent and X Factor artists alone.
Queried as to how he first came up with the idea of fusing music and TV, Cowell said some of the most significant moments of huge artists’ careers had been televised. “Whether it was the first moment when Elvis went on TV — and off the back of that there was an outrage, but it became a worldwide news story — (or) my memories of the Beatles are shots of screaming girls at their concerts or arriving at London airport where you’ve got 10,000 people waiting for them. So TV played a massive part in spreading their fame worldwide. For me I was very concerned about the stranglehold radio had on record companies… So I started to think that there could be ways of breaking artists in a non-traditional sense and that TV would be the platform for doing it.”
Morgan suggested that “people have said you’re not cool, that the stuff you do isn’t cool. What do you think of that?” Cowell responded, “Who cares? I couldn’t care less. Everyone has their own definition — I mean some people think you’re cool.” That one got a big laugh.
Morgan followed up, “I always say it’s your simplistic tastes that allow you to understand what the masses often like. In a sense you’re not a complicated guy. You like your spaghetti bolognaise, your fish and chips, your beer. You like to watch Flintstone movies and so on. You have quite middle of the road tastes in that sense. Do you think part of the trick is being able to do stuff which an audience is going to like?”
Cowell didn’t miss a beat and said, “One-hundred percent. In my business, if you guess, I believe you’ll get it wrong. You have to become the audience permanently.”
“If I was describing what you’re like to work for,” Morgan began at one point, “I’d say you can veer between brilliant, happy, mad, moody, difficult, very difficult and impossible, a perfectionist, a genius, a maverick, fearless… All thse characteristics I saw sometimes on the same day. Is any of that unfair?”
“I love what I do, Piers. And I think I am a perfectionist. I think the day that you stop caring and you just let everything go out without you looking at it is the day it’s over. I consider myself really lucky.”
The next avenue for Cowell may be an increased involvement in film. He has a new joint venture with Animal Logic to make musical animated movies together and then will “look at other vehicles designed to be successful as films but also to sell music… Maybe High School Musical is the route to go now.”