Just look what a singing clown and a piano-playing chicken can do for you.
Back for Season 12 last night, summer’s perennial No. 1 show America’s Got Talent (with its new host Tyra Banks replacing Nick Cannon) kept the ratings momentum going that spiked last year when Simon Cowell finally became a judge (replacing Howard Stern) on the American edition of the format he created. With an episode featuring Puddles the 6-foot-8 sad clown singing Sia’s “Chandelier” and a talented chicken playing a flawless rendition of “America the Beautiful” on a toy piano, AGT retained 100% of the show’s year-ago premiere and grew 3% in total viewers, becoming the show’s most-watched season premiere in six years.
Still, when I went out to Cowell’s Beverly Hills mansion recently to speak to him about the hugely successful series, he was frustrated that the TV industry seems to take it all for granted. He may be right. Despite being a consistent No. 1 show for the summer months on NBC, it gets zero love from the Emmys. Well, I shouldn’t say zero. It did nab a 2011 Outstanding Hairstyling nomination, but that is it. Cowell is determined this year to change this sad state of affairs, particularly as he sees another NBC talent competition series, The Voice, becoming a consistent Emmy darling. “I mean, it’s frustrating,” he said of the show he produced but always had been jonesing to actually be on. “I suppose I probably felt it more for America’s Got Talent than American Idol because it’s a much more difficult show to make. I mean, like a really hard show. This is a whole yearlong process. I watched a couple of episodes last year, and I’m not trying to be biased, but I genuinely thought this was the best TV I’d seen probably in all the years I’ve done it.”
Cowell’s stint on Idol consistently put him and his colleagues in the Emmy race, though that show never won, usually losing every year in the Reality Competition category to The Amazing Race. But Cowell is convinced that they just make AGT look too easy and that maybe a series that only airs annually in the warm-weather dog-days months of TV is at an Emmy disadvantage to begin with, premiering in what is the Oscar equivalent of a movie that opens in January. “If I had the opportunity and sat in front of all the TV Academy members, I would say to them, ‘If I showed you the process, the expertise, behind the scenes with every single act, it is like nothing I have ever seen in my life,’” he said, adding that until he came to America to work on television (in 2002 on Idol) he knew nothing about the Emmys. “I remember going to my first Emmy ceremony [in 2003] thinking: ‘Bloody hell, this is unbelievable. I mean it’s like having our own Academy Awards for TV.’ But for the production team, for them to get a nod this time would mean everything, and I mean everything. And I will do everything I can just to try and spread some awareness, because I think what they’ve done with this show, I think it is an amazing-looking show, a beautiful show.”
And since he started with the original, Britain’s Got Talent, which the tireless Cowell also still judges, a number of stars have popped, more notable than any the Emmy-winning The Voice has created to date. That includes Susan Boyle and opera star Paul Potts (whose BGT success spawned a Cowell-produced movie One Chance starring James Corden as Potts), and most recently last year’s AGT winner, teen singer Grace VanderWaal, whose first EP became the top seller in that category for 2016. The show also discovered young Jackie Evancho who sang the National Anthem at President Trump’s inauguration and has recorded several popular albums.
Although Cowell is happy to see gimmicky acts like a piano-playing chicken ratchet up the entertainment factor of the show, he is serious about using AGT and BGT to seriously develop stars, just as Idol produced the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and others. “You can’t just look at these people and go, ‘We’ve got a six-month window; let’s put a record out quick.’ You kill people that way. You have to think of people like Grace as long-term, and I said to her when she won that night, I said, ‘You are the next generation, you genuinely are’, and now I see the knock-on effect, because she did well other better singers are coming on. People have to trust your show, and that you’re going to do the right thing afterwards. You don’t just sign up loads of people, throw the records out and hope for the best. You stick with the ones you most believe in.” He also mentioned names like hip-hop violinist Lindsey Stirling and Mirage Hotel ventriloquist-singer-comic Terry Fator, who walked away from success in the second season of AGT with what Cowell says is a $150 million contract in Las Vegas.
Of course, one of the biggest acts he helped bring to the limelight came with his The X Factor show in Britain in 2010. That was One Direction, the worldwide pop phenomenon group that is part of the growing list of artists signed to Syco Entertainment, Cowell’s joint venture with Sony Music. Syco Music also has the likes of Il Divo, Fifth Harmony, Little Mix and others, and its TV assets include Got Talent and X Factor, which — though still popular internationally and in Britain — fizzled out quickly on Fox, lasting from 2011-13. Cowell regrets getting cocky and publicly predicting it would open in America with 20 million viewers and saying anything less would be a failure. It only got 12 million, which was not a bad number, but the damage was done.
Cowell is happy about stars like Fifth Harmony that came out of it, though. “You know, these formats can all work,” he said. “It’s the people who make the shows with you. I think the time I made X Factor [on Fox] was the wrong time for me, for the show. It could have been like we did in the UK (where it replaced Pop Idol), it could have replaced [American] Idol, and I think people would have enjoyed it.” He added that the talent competition area was becoming over-saturated at the time, which didn’t help. But still they keep coming, as I pointed out to Cowell; Ryan Seacrest is involved in producing a new series called Best.Cover.Ever, a YouTube show in which the winner eventually gets to duet their cover of a hit with the artist who did it first. Cowell agrees YouTube is definitely a factor in this genre but not as big as it could be.
“There are not as many coming through as you would have thought,” he said. “I think if we’d have sat here 10 years ago, made a prediction of how many big stars, particularly pop stars, we think are going to come through YouTube, I would’ve said conservatively, 50, and we’re nowhere near that number. I think it’s starting to happen, but for me, the one thing I love about TV is I like sitting on TV first, and then it gets picked up online. I like that,” he smiled. As for the show that made his name for eight seasons as the “nasty” judge — he maintains he is just being honest — I asked what he thought about American Idol coming back so soon.
Even though it had not been announced officially when we spoke, he seemed to have moved on. “I don’t really have any involvement in that show, other than my time spent on it, which is a good memory,” Cowell said. “I doubt very much I would ever be involved in that show again. The thing about that show was, sometimes you just create magic without realizing you’re creating it, whether it was the producers, the judges, the host — everything just worked. And one by one everybody left and you could feel it coming. It was like because there is not much of a format with Idol. … For me, Idol is a memory, a great memory at the beginning.”
For now, this busy music mogul-turned-TV star is happy to be making new memories back on American TV and back looking for the next big star. “I had confidence making the show in America because of the legacy of just American entertainment full-stop,” he said. “If you think of the glory Vegas years, Rat Pack and all the stars that have come through over the years, and I was thinking, there has to be, there just has to be more than one great act in America right now who’s got a special talent but just needs the showcase.” He pointed to one girl, his “golden buzzer” as he says, whose story and talent in this new season gives him goosebumps. “It’s just one of those things, and it just makes you realize, as much as this is about talent, and it is, it’s also about people and some of the people you meet along the way. It’s incredible. That’s when I go, ‘and they’re paying me to do this job?'”