"American Idol" has pretty well cornered the market on anointing singers via television, but Simon Cowell thinks the country is ready for a talent competition that's a little broader in scope.
"I've always been a fan of American talent shows, and I've always wanted the opportunity to make a talent show on a network here whereby anyone who's talented is allowed to enter," says Cowell, the tart-tongued "Idol" judge.
He's getting his wish, as NBC has ordered a summer series called "America's Got Talent" from Cowell and some members of the "Idol" team. He and fellow executive producer Ken Warwick held a pair of press conferences Monday to announce casting calls for the show, which is looking for comedians, singers, magicians -- anyone who thinks they can entertain America.
"When we say broad, we mean broad," says Cowell, who's also an executive producer of ABC's "American Inventor." "You can be 2 year old, you can be 100 years old, you can be the next Destiny's Child, the next Jackson 5, or the next David Copperfield. We basically want to stress that this is a show that is literally open to anybody."
The series will follow the "American Idol" blueprint by beginning with audition footage, then narrowing the field to the best acts. Viewer voting will help determine the winner, who will walk away with a $1 million prize.
Casting calls will begin next week in Los Angeles, proceeding on to Chicago, New York and Atlanta (details are at NBC.com). And in an effort to stand apart from other shows, the "America's Got Talent" auditions will carry an element of chance.
"Everyone who turns up will be sitting in the audience, and no one knows if they'll be auditioning until their name is called," Cowell explains. "There are going to be about a thousand [hopefuls] a day, and only 70 or 80 will get to see the judges. So you've got to be dressed, you've got to be prepared, and if your name and number is called, you run up to the stage and audition."
Cowell also says that the audition rounds will feature "a device to stop the act, which I won't reveal at the moment, but it's brutal." In response to a reporter's question, he does allow that the device is neither a gong nor a trap door.
"A trap door is something I've requested for years on 'American Idol,' and I haven't been given one yet," he says with a laugh.
In its cross-disciplinary approach, "America's Got Talent" is similar to "The Entertainer," an E! series in which performers competed for a spot in Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton's show. Cowell says he's familiar with "The Entertainer," adding that "I hated it."
"For me it's rather like when 'Popstars' came on before 'Idol' and some of the other competing shows around 'Idol,'" Cowell says. "You've got to A) make a great show, and you've got to let the audience at the beginning see the auditions. To me it's the most crucial part of these shows. ... It's everything I wouldn't have done."
Cowell says he spoke with FOX, which airs "Idol," about "America's Got Talent," but NBC, which was looking for its own talent competition franchise, was enamored of the idea from the start. And neither he nor Warwick is worried that viewers have had enough of talent shows; the massive ratings for "Idol," plus the success of "Dancing with the Stars" and "America's Next Top Model," among other shows, seem to back that up.
"I'd rather be part of that than not," Cowell says. "And hopefully what we can do with this show is fill a gap when 'Idol' finishes or be a very different type of talent show."