Surprise: Simon says his new show is "heartwarming"

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When Simon Cowell speaks, people listen. And often, they then boo or hiss--especially when he is excoriating one of their favorite amatuer singers on American Idol. But nonetheless, they do listen. This afternoon, TV.com listened to Simon talk about American Inventor, the show he has cocreated and that premieres Thursday, March 16, at 8 p.m., on ABC. The producer held an intimate conference call with the industry, and we were on the line.

American Inventor allows hopeful inventors who think they have a great idea to pitch it to a panel of judges and then spend 10 weeks honing the project with an eye to selling it to a company. The final competitor will win $1 million dollars.

Cowell said the show will appeal to a broad audience, because "like Idol, viewers will be able to relate to the people who are trying out. I wanted to make the show about the people, not just about gadgets--I am not a big fan of gadgets. So while the inventions that make it through are actually great, it's like Idol in that you get the best and you get the worst, and it's a blast."

Cowell wanted the show to be entertaining and heartwarming, and many of the contestants deeply believe they have come up with something incredible. "Some people have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their dream idea. I'd say 90 percent of the people who walked through that door had put their whole lives into their project. It's full of normal people, and we tried to strike a balance between funny and outlandish and heartwarming."

While the emphasis is on the feel-good aspect, the show has plenty of Idol-esque wackiness, particularly in the audition period.

"You see these delusional people... In the pilot we have a dental hygienist who brings in a briefcase that opens up and turns into a contraption that allows you to pee in public. You say to yourself, what made them think they could make this and why would they want to?"

Another contestant dresses up like a giant cockroach to pitch his idea of "The Space Beetle."

The producers did minimal publicity for the casting calls, yet the turnout was far greater than they had anticipated. "We thought we were going to get 1,500 to 2,000 applicants, but we got closer to 10,000. Of that, I would say 65 percent of them were flakes, meaning people who were treating it like an audition just to get on TV."

Unlike Idol, the judges will be deciding who makes the cut up until the very end, when the vieweing audience will be able to vote. In the pilot, a contestant advances even though he underwhelms with his invention because the judges were moved by his personal story.

But Cowell says that the gadgets and inventions on the show are amazing.

"Even though the show is not simply about the gadgets, they are spectacular. I truly believe that many of them could revolutionize their fields."

Cowell said he was approached with the idea by Pete Jones, a UK entreprenuer who is a judge on the show. After Simon and his company, Fremantle Media, tweaked it, they packaged it and sold it to ABC. Now, they are planning on bringing versions to the UK and Australia.

Of all the places to make a reality show, Cowell said the US is the best. "It's the best place in the world. It's the land of the American dream. You get the very good and the very bad, but I love that because it's eccentric."

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