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Interview: Simon Cowell - The Way Forward For Syco Entertainment.


Simon Cowell attended spoke to the guardian at MIPCOM in Cannes this week about the opportunities coming through from YouTube and digital channels.

A big theme of MIPCOM is much more relevant to Simon and his Syco Entertainment production business: shifting viewing habits among young “millennials”.

Simon has dipped his toes in the YouTube waters already. In March 2013 Syco launched You Generation, a “global talent competition” on YouTube that would run for a year, with people uploading auditions showing off their talents. Since that year was up, it has been shelved.

What did Simon learn from the experiment? “Nothing much. It made a bit of money, I found it time-consuming, and it was mainly that,” he says. “If it was going to carry on, I was going to have to hire 10 or 20 more people… So we put a hold on it.”

“When I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this properly,” he says. “Everything’s happening so quickly at the moment… There are certain things I’m looking at which are of interest to us. You Generation? I personally had nothing to do with it, but this one I saw, I would love to do that.”

For a growing number of young people, YouTube is their TV, and the stars they find there are as influential to them as celebrities from the music, TV and film worlds.

“For a lot of people, they would maybe get nervous if they’ve got a YouTube following. Going on a show like ours can work for you or against you. If you’re good, it’s going to benefit you. If you’re not, to be honest, you might as well stay on YouTube,” says Cowell.

Would he ever consider starting a talent show on social media then taking it to television? “We’ve discussed that a lot,” he says. “I can’t give too much away, because I’ve done that in the past and have regretted it.” In other words, yes.

Simon says he is alive to the danger that younger viewers will drift away from X Factor because they’re more interested in YouTubers, though. “We ignore all these things at our peril,” he says, while claiming that he’s not seeing such a drain yet.

“With X Factor, if you look at the 16-34 share, it’s massive still. That was always my worry: the show was going to date. But we’re getting more young viewers watching X Factor now. But I do read and listen and act on what people on the internet are saying. I don’t get in a huff about it.”

If there’s a crossover between YouTube and TV talent shows, it might be in the latter using some of the tactics that have created stars on the former.

Simon admits that with 16 contestants starting the current phase of X Factor in the UK, it’s initially a challenge helping viewers get to know them purely through their performances and 45-second introductions.

The kind of daily video-blogging (vlogging) that drives a lot of YouTubers’ success might be the answer, in between episodes. And they would also be building up their YouTube subscribers and Twitter/Facebook followings ready for whatever comes after the series ends.

Simon Cowell is well aware of the growing importance of social media to shows like X Factor and Got Talent, not just in terms of viewers chatting about them as they air, but for building the profile of contestants in that way.

“With One Direction, the longer they stayed on the show, the bigger the followers became, and after the show there was this group of superfans who made it their mission to break this band: to be our marketing department,” he says.

“It was astonishing. When it works, it’s absolutely fantastic. If they’re smart on the shows, they’ll build up their followings as quickly as possible, and I would encourage that.”

More real-time interaction is making its way into Syco’s shows. “We’ve got the [X Factor] app now, and it’s free voting and we allow people to vote at the top of the show, so in a sense you’re taking part rather than having to wait for the recap element. That’s a step in the right direction,” he says.

“I like the idea of the viewers kinda getting more interactive in terms of the songs they’re going to sing. You’ll see that later on with the songs in the series. But I’m slightly nervous that technology almost overrules what should be a singing show.

“This is something I’m very conscious about at the moment: I always think these shows work when there really is a connection between the contestant and the people at home. But I would like the audience at home to feel involved and invested. We have to do it slowly rather than make radical changes.”

Yet another theme at MIPCOM is the way digital services from Netflix and Amazon to PlayStation and Hulu are commissioning original TV shows. A lot of this has focused on drama – House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black and so on – but Netflix recently poached US comedian Chelsea Handler to make a new chat-show for its service.

"We’re going to announce something soon which is quite a big show, and it’s not on a cable network, and not on a major network. It’s somewhere else. I think it’s hopefully a bit of a game changer,” says Cowell.

“The market’s suddenly got much bigger: there are a lot of these people out there. House of Cards was part of the reason: people now have confidence that you don’t have to be a broadcaster to make money on these things. And inevitably those kind of people will want entertainment shows. We could do a whole show in a week or two weeks… we’re not dependent on a network schedule any more.”

Later in the conversation, he mentions that “the show we’re announcing this month or next month took three years to develop”, so this has clearly been a long time coming.

One advantage to a deal with someone like a Netflix or an Amazon would be the chance to launch the same show across different countries, rather than licensing individual versions for each country as happens with shows like X Factor.

“That’s something we’ve been thinking of for more than three years. A long, long time. I think it’s going to get easier,” he says, although the memory of World Idol – a one-off edition of the Idol format that saw Will Young and Kelly Clarkson competing against other winners from around the world – serves as a cautionary tale.

“They tried the Idol one and it was so bad, it just put everyone off. There was something like 11 or 16 judges!” he says. “And judging took about half an hour on every act, and every judge had been put on the show to be me: it was who could be ruder?”

Cowell also has views on the way reality television has been evolving, although it seems he’s not a fan of “scripted-reality” shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex. “There’s a lot of junk under the term ‘reality’ which is the most non-reality I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says.

“People just being told to say things, or situations being set up to create drama. It’s the opposite of reality, and people are getting bored of it I think. I’m getting bored of it!”

As the roundtable draws to a close, Cowell has a few more thoughts on technology as it relates not just to the television industry, but to his old stomping ground of music.

“What is happening on our phones, and obviously iTunes is setting the way, particularly for younger record buyers, it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s happened since I’ve been in the music business,” he said.

“When you’ve got 40 million people all effectively carrying a record player in their back pockets, and the ability that they can hear something and buy it within 30 seconds? We would be total idiots to mess that up.

“You’re going to see more people buying tracks immediately after our shows, and this is something, if we’ve got the shows in 50-odd countries, we’ve got to do this properly now.”

Source and Full interview: The Guardian

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