This year an average of 30 million Americans tuned in to every episode of "American Idol," on FOX. By any measure the numbers are impressive, but it's not just pop star wannabes that keep people watching — it's also the judges, in particular 47-year-old Simon Cowell.
His verbal assaults on the contestants are often downright cruel, but the TV audience seems to love them. FOX reportedly pays him more than $30 million a year and he gets another $38 million annually to be a judge on a similar show in England. What most viewers probably don't realize however is that Simon Cowell isn't just a high-paid judge.
As CNN anchor and 60 Minutes contributor Anderson Cooper reports, he's now one of the most successful music figures in the world — though he admits he has no musical ability at all.
He doesn't sing, read music or produce albums, and he says he plays the guitar "very badly." So what does Cowell do? With a laugh, he tells Cooper, "[I] guess what's gonna be popular. Literally that."
"Well, no, because I think 99 percent of the people who watch the show are in the same position as me. They know when somebody's good or not," Cowell says. "And for me, it's been a help not knowing too much. So I can rely on my instincts."
Instincts are what Cowell credits for his success, but it's how he displays those instincts that have made him a household name. And there's no shortage of people who want to take him on.
"American Idol," which wrapped up its sixth season in May, is more popular than ever. Tens of thousands show up to audition. There are a talented few, but an untalented many — and that's where Cowell comes in.
"Thank you, Nicholas. What the bloody hell was that?" Cowell said to one "Idol" hopeful.
"We've got a lot of people in the auditions who had — who were going to sing badly on purpose and we never show them. The people we show are the people who genuinely believe they're gonna win. And that's what's fascinating," he says.
"Every one of those people, no matter how bad they are, they really think they have talent?" asks Cooper.
"Every single one," answers Cowell. "Every single one."
Cowell is ruthless to them, critiquing not just their performance but, in some cases, their physical appearance.
"You look like one of those creatures who live in the jungle with those massive eyes. What are they called? Bush Babies?" he told another during "Idol" auditions.
Cowell says the conflict makes for good TV and he's not about to apologize for it — quite the contrary.
"Some people have equated it to a medieval stoning — that it's the same kind of motivation which people watch it," Cooper says.
"It's an interesting thought for a show where we actually could do that," he says.
But would Cowell really consider it?
"Why not?" he laughs. "I can see a similarity to a point. But it's human nature. You know, we are fascinated with that."
Does he think everything should be shown on TV? Yes. Even public executions?
"I think people should be given the choice to watch them, I guess. Yeah, why not?" he says.
"With commercials?" asks Cooper.
"Sponsorship," Cowell responds with more laughter. "Yeah, sponsorship."