The TBI interview: Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell is the most successful TV executive of recent years; the man behind The X Factor and Got Talent, talks exclusively to Peter White about the television business, keeping formats fresh, his forthcoming moves into drama and his mother’s roast potatoes.


“There was a point a couple of years ago, where you started to think ‘how long are these shows going to last for?’, going from one decade into another. Are they going to stand up in this decade and be as relevant as they were, say, seven years ago because history tells you that most of these things are normally centred around a ten-year period,” Simon Cowell, creator of The X Factor and Got Talent formats, tells TBI. “Yet, here we are in 2012 and we have added another ten markets to what we did last year [with Got Talent], which is miraculous and is testament to the show and that it’s a good format.”

Cowell is the most successful television executive operating today. He has worked on and created the biggest television formats of the past ten years – Idols, The X Factor, Got Talent – as well as being on-screen talent himself.

He shows no signs of slowing down, launching new formats including Red or Black? and Food, Glorious Food and starting to roll them out around the world.

His company Syco Entertainment, which is a partnership with Sony Music, controls the rights to Cowell’s intellectual property and works with international TV distributors including FremantleMedia (The X Factor, Got Talent), ITV Studios Global Entertainment (Red or Black?) and  (Food, Glorious Food) to adapt these shows in the rest of the world, working with Syco’s head of international George Levendis.

Got Talent is currently the best-performing format in the world, according to Médiamétrie’s Eurodata TV Worldwide, and has been remade locally in over fifty countries.

The show was originally launched as America’s Got Talent on NBC in 2006 and Britain’s Got Talent on ITV in 2007, before being remade in territories including Australia by Seven Network, in China by Dragon TV, in Germany by RTL and in India by Viacom’s Colors.

“We spend so much time developing a format and, if it’s going to just be a one-off show in your country, it just doesn’t become cost effective,” Cowell says.

Syco has its own SWAT team to make sure that the format is developed successfully around the world. “As you work in these regions, you notice that the world has become quite global. People in the United States are as excited as the people in Egypt or India or Japan,” says Levendis. “Got Talent has very broad appeal. It’s very difficult to duplicate this format, which we see a lot of at the moment.”

Levendis adds that he is particularly pleased with its Arabian version, which airs across the Middle East on MBC, given the political situation in the region. “It’s more than just signing in your own language,” he says. “It’s wonderfully refreshing.”

Cowell says that when it launches an entertainment format, it considers three criteria: “Number one, is it going to work as a successful show, number two, is it going to travel across the world and thirdly is there an ancillary business in addition to the show? With The X Factor, as an example, we can sign artists to the record label, we can share in the commercial revenue and the tour revenue so there is a separate business to the show. So those are the three criteria when deciding on the next show.”

Cowell is especially pleased with the latest season of Britain’s Got Talent, which saw dog trick act Ashleigh and Pudsey win the competition. “Britain’s Got Talent this year was better made, the talent was better, the production of the show was better and we brought in new ideas. When I watched the first five minutes, I thought it was the best five minutes of a show I have ever seen in my life. They had big flash mobs of Trafalgar Square with thousands of people and they went the extra mile and more importantly, they knew what had gone wrong the year before and they didn’t get complacent,” he adds.

The evolution of the format and the way that Syco and FremantleMedia have adapted and refreshed it is essential to keep the show a success, both in the US and UK, and around the world. “We also take great [international] ideas and feed them back into the US and UK,” says Levendis, highlighting creative ideas from its Dutch and Australian teams, in particular.

“When I look at this year’s show [Britain’s Got Talent], I thought it was brilliantly produced and the talent was great and it had a really good feeling around it. That’s the template that we try to copy around the world – that actually, if you put your mind to it, you can make a better show this year than you did last year.”

Last year Syco launched the big-budget gameshow Red or Black? with ITV and ITV Global Studios Entertainment, and this year it is launching Food, Glorious, Food in association with All3Media-owned Optomen International.

“Simon is always talking about how his mother’s roast potatoes are the best in the world and Food, Glorious, Food is warmer than our other shows. It’s similar to shows like Antique’s Roadshow and the Great British Bake Off, which I think is very interesting. It’s not as loud as the things that we normally do. It came from a different place,” says Levendis. The company is confident of striking a number of global deals at MIPCOM and has already received interest from Australia, France and Germany.

Syco is also developing a format that will endeavour to discover the world’s greatest dance music DJs and is in discussions with a number of partners at the moment.
“The intention is to get into new types of shows,” says Levendis. “What Simon and Nigel [Hall, global head of television, Syco] do is ask whether a show is inspiring and whether Simon is excited by it. It’s silly to think that any company only has one dimension. If we find that a show has broad appeal and we find it interesting, then we’re not stuck to a particular genre.”

The most intriguing new development at Syco is its plans to move into the scripted arena. The company, which has previously worked exclusively in the unscripted business, has acquired the rights to a literary property and is in talks to adapt it as its first drama project. “Simon read a particular book and the next day bought the rights. This is one that Simon is very excited about. It’s our first move into scripted,” says Levendis.

Levendis will be a high-profile figure at this year’s MIPCOM in Cannes and will be working with FremantleMedia, ITV Studios and Optomen International to pitch its formats to international broadcasters. He says that he will have a particular focus on the Got Talent format, but also hopes to close new deals for The X Factor, ink Red or Black’s first global sales and shop Food, Glorious, Food to hungry international networks.

He is very diplomatic when discussing its long term strategy in terms of international distribution, and says, while he can envisage a time where Syco International has a formal presence at the market, and expects Simon Cowell to make an appearance in Cannes one day, the company is currently very happy with its global distribution partners. “The strategy for now is to come up with great ideas and work with the best partners, who excel in their field,” he says.

Simon Cowell on YouTube

Simon Cowell is very aware of the propensity of his shows to go viral. He is, in fact, very pleased with much of the free promotion of his formats receive from online services such as YouTube. “YouTube is now our best sales agent for the show. It was like free promotion, I loved it. I always encouraged the broadcasters to allow YouTube to post whatever they wanted because it’s basically free promotion for us across the rest of the world,” he says.

Being aware of the digital future is paramount, according to George Levendis. “Frankly, we’ve got to be aware of the changes in trends, whether it’s from a digital or production perspective or even casting.”

Cowell says that he can see a point in the not-so-distant future where YouTube becomes a rival to traditional broadcasters: “There is no question of a doubt that it won’t be long until YouTube will be an alternative to a traditional broadcaster and they get it, we get it. They’ve definitely got the money. I’m thinking personally when we get to that point, which isn’t in the too distant future where we are going to be able to watch TV and YouTube and it will be channel six. I think when we reach that point they are going to be serious competition.”

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