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Inventing New Idols: Simon Cowell on ‘American Inventor’ Season Two

[IMG:L]Simon Cowell is admittedly one of the most despised men in America–and it’s clear he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s best known as the brutally honest, Brit judge on the ratings bonanza American Idol which just crowned its new reigning (teen) queen, Jordin Sparks–openly praised by the fault-finding Simon.

But for his latest show, American Inventor, now going into its second season on ABC, Cowell has stepped behind-the-scenes as the program’s producer. He has left the eclectic judges, George ForemanPat Croce and Sara Blakely to their own devices. In its first season, the buzzed-about show produced a successful inventor and awarded his creation with the $1 million dollar prize.

The new season of American Inventor premieres Wednesday, June 6, at 9 pm EST. And Simon gives Hollywood.com an exclusive sneak peek of what’s to come.

Hollywood.com: What was the diagnosis of American Inventor‘s first season, and how did you try to improve upon the model you already had?
Simon Cowell: Well it’s always easier to make the second show than it is the first show. There were elements of the first show I liked, and elements of the first show I didn’t like. I thought it needed at least one well-known person on the panel, and the person I’d always wanted to do this show from the day we created it was George Foreman. He liked the show last year and once we got him the whole production got that much easier. I felt it needed a kick up the butt as shows often do. I’ve seen the first rough cut and it’s in a different league to last year’s show.

HW: So, what distinguishes this season from the first?
SC: We think it has found its own identity this year. It is like the thinking person’s American Idol. It’s not a bunch of singers trying to be famous. These are people who have given up thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, all in the hope that this show is going to rescue them. So it’s both funny and sad and sometimes actually quite tragic, but it’s a brilliantly made show this time around. I’m very proud of it.

HW: Was there ever any thought of increasing the $1 million prize?
Well, $1 million is still a lot of money. I was thinking of halving it and keeping the other half for my expenses, but ABC wouldn’t let me. It’s a great prize. All the finalists also get $50,000 to develop [their inventions] and of course, they get the product manufactured. That’s really what it’s all about for these people; they want their product on the show.

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HW: There are certain rules that these inventors have to follow. Did anybody try to slip anything through that wasn’t allowed?
SC: I wasn’t there during all of the auditions. I’m sure there were lots of people who came in and made all sorts of wild claims, but then actually couldn’t make engines that run on salt water, flying cars and all that sort of stuff. We allowed anyone to enter the show, any age, they could come with drawings, finished products, whatever they wanted.

[IMG:R]HW: Why do you feel having George Foreman on the panel will help the show?
SC: I think with any show like this you’ve got to have a star on the show. I would have put George on the first series, but because of availability problems he couldn’t do it. But you’ll see the impact he makes on the show in the second series. The whole show has glammed-up tremendously. It’s a much better panel this time around–and it’s more intense. I think it’s going to make a big difference.

HW: Can the auditions get just as “bad” for this show as they are for Idol?
I only saw the first cut last night and I would say 70 percent of the people who were on show are probably insane. I’ve never seen anything so weird in all my life.

HW: What were some of my weirder things that you saw?
SC: Everything was weird. They all come in with these strange ideas. Amazingly, they’ve all got normal jobs and they’ve invented what they think are incredible ideas. One guy came in and his invention was the wheel. He literally went crazy and nearly beat up the judges because they said, “it’s already been invented.” But that’s what you get when you get lots of people who are blind to anything other than their invention. They won’t take “no” for an answer. But in a way, I think it’s more tragic than Idol because they’ve spent so much money trying to get these things made or developed so when they get a no, it’s horrible. Sometimes it’s actually quite uncomfortable to watch.

HW: Unlike contestants on American Idol, these inventors are really creating something, rather trying to highlight something within themselves. Can they really be judged in the same way?
SC: That’s part of the reason I changed the panel up this year. George Foreman is somebody who made a quite simple product. I think he sold 100 million or something of those George Foreman grills. He made it successful and I think he was a good example that if you believe in something, even if it’s something fairly straightforward, it can happen. The reason I wanted Sara [Blakely] in particular was because she was running around town with what everybody thought was a silly idea [the footless pantyhose], and she’s become a billionaire through this product.

HW: The real challenge of the show seems to be finding great inventors who also have winning personalities.
SC: Yes, I think you’re right. I think you’ll find that some of the people they back are people who’ve got great personalities, as well as great products. That’s taking me back again to George Foreman, I think it’s one of the reasons why his grill was so popular was because you had a guy with incredible charisma who believed in his product and every time he went on TV millions of people bought it. You’ve got to have a great product and you’ve got to be interesting.

HW: Have you ever created a gadget of your own?
SC: No, the only thing I’ve ever created is shows. But it is a similar process. You’ve got to start with an idea, and then you’ve got to get the thing made. And then you hope it’s going to be a success, so I know what these people are going through. When we were selling Idol, everyone turned it down. American Inventor is the only show available to these people and there are literally tens of thousands of people in this country who’ve all got great ideas and they don’t know where to go with them.

HW: Is there an invention that you have that you can’t live without?
SC: Yes, it’s called the SoniCare toothbrush. It’s the best toothbrush in the world; and I will not live without it and I freak out when I lose it. It’s electrical and it goes crazy inside your mouth. It’s like going to the dentist. I sincerely recommend it.

HW: Can you update us on last year’s champion [Janusz Liberkowski] and his car seat prototype, the Anecia Survival Capsule?
SC: He’s doing well. But because of the nature of the invention you’ve got to go through months, if not years, of unbelievable safety checks. But we got a company to finance that, and I understand that it will be on the market within two years…they’re very excited about it.

HW: Will you appear on American Inventor all?
No, I won’t but I’m a very heavy influence on this show. It’s edited the way I like. I believe that when you make a reality show you’ve got to show the good and the bad.

[IMG:L]HW: On Idol you are the straight-talking judge–is that missing from Inventor?
SC: It was and I think that’s changed, particularly with Pat Croce. The one thing we said to the judges this year was that they’ve got to remember that they’ve got a lot of lives in their hands, but they’ve got to treat this as if it was their day job. George Foreman is unbelievably supportive to everybody because he’s that guy and Pat, in particular, is the voice of reason.

HW: So you see George filling out the role of nice guy?
SC: Oh yes. He genuinely is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. … Pat and Peter [Jones] are quite tough to please but that’s what we needed on the show this year. We didn’t ask them to be mean or anything like that. We said “Together you’re all worth about $3 billion, so do what you do in your day job and play it straight.”

HW: How many shows are you involved in these days?
If I count them from around the world at the moment, I’ve got something like 50 to 60 shows in production right now.

HW: Wow!
SC: Yeah, it’s a quite a lot.

HW: Which ones are you most involved in?
Every single one. During the launch and the development of a show, whether it’s Idol or Inventor or X-Factor or America’s Got Talent, they completely and utterly consume you. So I spend as much time on all the shows now. I can sometimes be sitting in an edit room until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.

HW: So most of your time is spent as a TV producer, rather than a record producer?
Yes, I would say it’s probably 70/30 [percents] TV to music now; and part of the reason is that we’ve got Clive Davis over here in the States to look after the Idol winners, so we’re putting these artists in very good hands.

HW: Is there anything short of murder that cannot be turned into a contest for television?
We’re contemplating that one next. Why not? Maybe we could incorporate it into Idol at some point [laughs]. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got an interesting subject. Even though inventions sound boring on paper, the people behind them have always fascinated me because they’re normally ‘normal’ people with ‘normal’ jobs who’ve ended up sacrificing tons of money and a lot of time in the belief that this thing is going to turn them into a billionaire. … They are mortgage brokers, they work in cafes or whatever and they’ve all put everything on the line for these weird ideas. I find that fascinating.

HW: I’ve read a number of bios on you and of course, you work with very talented people, but it seems like a lot of the bands that you are most famous for putting together feel like manufactured products.
I’ve always treated the music business as a business. I always looked at Idol as one of my artists and as a route to selling more records. I’ve probably now got 100 Idol artists around the world signed to my label so it was another business decision. That’s the way I’ve always viewed the music business and I think it’s the right way of viewing it. I’ve never done it for art; I’ve done it to sell records.

HW: But is that where the best work comes from?
My main concern is that people enjoy what I’m making, and that I’m able to sell a lot of records. I’ve never believed in leaving some sort of artistic legacy. We just want a lot of people to enjoy these shows and I don’t care about winning awards or not. I just want ratings.

HW: Do you think that Melinda Doolittle’s loss hurts the show’s credibility?
No I don’t think it hurts the show’s credibility. When you allow the public to choose, you’ve got to live and die by the votes. I didn’t agree with the vote, but more people should have dialed for Melinda. It was as simple as that.

HW: This has been a pretty crazy season.
I like crazy. I would never want to be in a situation where the final 12 are normal people, because I think it would be boring. The panel is wacky enough therefore the contestants should be a bit strange as well. I thought the whole Sanjaya thing was hysterical.

HW: You seemed to be irritated by him on the show.
I’m happy now because he’s off. I don’t think I’d be happy if he was in finals, so I can now be quite smug about it. But looking back, I thought it was quite amusing.

HW: You hear reports that the ratings on Idol are a bit down.
SC: You go down, you go up. It’s still eight million ahead of the second place show. By season six we’re still number one, averaging 28 million so I’ll take that. I didn’t think we’d get beyond season one so every other season’s been a bonus.

HW: Did the loss of Sanjaya hurt the ratings?
Maybe it did for a week or two then the competition got back into its groove.

HW: Taylor Hicks’ album isn’t selling as well as people thought it would, is that you being right again?
SC: Yes, completely. … I was talking to someone about this the other day. I was saying, don’t confuse talent with popularity, because this is a talent show; and no one listened to me at the time, and they all laughed at me when he won last year. I remember saying he’s not the best person we’ve had in here; he’s just the most popular.

HW: I imagine you as the kind of guy who likes when people throw barbs back at him. Maybe that’s why you liked recent contestant Chris Sligh’s cheeky personality?
Yes, I encourage it. I don’t think they do it enough because they all think they’re going to be voted off if they’re rude to me. I think it’s the opposite. I think the more they are rude to me the more votes they’ll get. I think off-camera they’re going completely nuts complaining about me, and then on camera they’re just smiling and I don’t understand that. I think it should be two-way; if I’m rude to them, they’re more than entitled to be rude back to me.

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