BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After a 2½ -year absence from American TV, Simon Cowell got an appropriate welcome when he returned for his first taping as an America’s Got Talent judge.
“The first audition was an 83-year-old woman standing on her head singing the national anthem. I thought, ‘OK, I’m back,’ ” he says. “It was a thrill, a buzz that first day.”
Cowell, 56, who helped lead a talent-competition renaissance as the arch arbiter of monster hit American Idol, rejoins the U.S. reality TV landscape for Season 11 of NBC summer hit Talent (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT), a show he created and produces.
It’s not as if he’s out of practice offering opinions: Since the U.S. version of The X Factor, a three-season series that didn’t come close to Idol’s heights but produced Fifth Harmony, Cowell has judged on Britain’s Got Talent and the United Kingdom X Factor while continuing to assess talent as a recording executive.
“Before we were judging on TV, we were always auditioning people. My whole life has become a bloody audition,” says Cowell, who will join returning panelists Heidi Klum, Mel B and Howie Mandel and host Nick Cannon as Talent goes back to its first home, Los Angeles, after four seasons in New York with now-departed judge Howard Stern.
“He was very good,” Cowell says. “I never would have taken his job if he wanted to stay on the show.”
Talent goes far beyond the singing focus of Idol, X Factor and The Voice, its format designed to stand out in a sea of music competitions.
“Every time you turned on the TV, somebody would be singing out of tune. It started to drive me mad,” Cowell says. “This girl was singing some awful song, and I thought, ‘I actually would prefer to watch a dancing dog.’ It was the genesis of the idea.”
While Talent features comics, acrobats, ventriloquists (including Season 10 champ Paul Zerdin) and hard-to-define acts, Cowell says more singers applied this season, and he hopes to generate stars along the lines of Fifth Harmony, One Direction (assembled on the U.K.’s X Factor) and Susan Boyle (Britain’s Got Talent).
His music-industry experience will help, he says, adding that one reason TV competitions are producing fewer stars is that famous performers, not talent executives, are the judges. “Would you hire an artist to run your record label? I wouldn’t,” he says.
Mandel vouches for his expertise.
“Somebody would be on stage doing something and he would go, ‘Stop!’ Like they weren’t nervous enough. He would say, ‘The choice you’re making is wrong. Try something else.’ They would do it, terrified, but it made them better,” he says. “He is a producer, a star-maker.”
He’s also a father to two-year-old Eric — with girlfriend Lauren Silverman — a happy addition since his last U.S. TV stint ended in 2013. Whether fatherhood will influence his on-air personality remains to be seen, but Cowell appears serene taking on a new, if familiar, role.
Talent is “a funny, optimistic show. The panel reflects that. I think I’m pretty much the same. If I like someone, I really like them and if I don’t like someone, I don’t like them,” he says, explaining that many kinder moments on past series were cut. “I wasn’t always rude.”