Simon Cowell was the 2010 Special Award recipient, in recognition of his highly successful re-invention of Saturday night family entertainment.
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Words by Matthew Bell
BAFTA/Richard KendalTelevision and music mogul Simon Cowell was presented with the Special Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the television entertainment industry and commitment to new talent.
Cowell’s two ITV series,The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, were the most-watched shows on British television at the time of the 2010 Television Awards, with audiences in 2009 peaking at more than 19 million for each show. In today’s multichannel world where viewers are spoiled for choice, these are heights that a modern TV programme rarely achieves.
He is also a great ambassador for British television. Britain’s Got Talent was the fastest selling format worldwide at the end of the noughties and by 2010 was aired in more than 40 countries. The X Factor is shown in 26 countries.
Light entertainment, which had long been on TV’s endangered species list, is now in rude health – and Cowell is one of the major reasons for its recovery. Alongside his TV business, Cowell also runs SyCo Music. The first acts he signed up – like his later TV shows – were unashamedly populist: Sinitta, Robson & Jerome and Westlife.
Cowell has long known what a mass audience wants and how to please it – and continues to do so with some of the world’s biggest selling acts such as Il Divo, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle. Worldwide, he has sold more than 150 million records.
His TV breakthrough came as a judge on the first series of ITV’s Pop Idol in 2001.The show was an instant hit, with audiences drawn to the battle between rival singers Will Young and Gareth Gates—and by Cowell’s blunt appraisals of the show’s pop wannabes. The following year, Cowell reprised this role on Fox TV’s American Idol.
His next TV venture saw the birth of The X Factor, allowing Cowell to sell the format abroad and act as one of the show’s judges, alongside Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh. The X Factor, which has notched up four BAFTA wins to date, has been a launching pad for singers to build showbiz careers around the world.
As well as topping the charts in the UK, Leona Lewis has enjoyed the kind of incredible success in the states that UK artists usually only dream of. Many other acts, including JLS, Diana Vickers and the multiplatinum- selling Alexandra Burke, have gone on to carve out hugely successful careers. Boyle, last year’s Britain’s Got Talent runner-up, notched up 500 million YouTube hits and shot to number 1 with her debut album in 21 countries.
Cowell’s next development was Britain’s Got Talent, a show that’s brought back the entertainers and novelty acts last seen on Opportunity Knocks in its 1970s heyday. Presented by Ant & Dec, with an unchanging panel of Cowell, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden, Britain’s Got Talent is now in its fourth series. Stavros Flatley, Kate and Gin’s dog act, Janey Cutler… what’s not to like?
Over the years, Cowell has coined some memorable put downs. He told one contestant: “If you win this competition, we will have failed.” Another was posed this unanswerable question: “Let me throw a mathematical dilemma at you —there are 500 left, how come the odds of you winning are a million to one?” But there’s usually more kindness than acerbity in Cowell’s judgements.
In March 2010, he appeared on ITV1 chat show Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.Typically, his presence brought the chat show its highest ever ratings. Cowell told the host that he always strove “to be more successful than [the] competition. And the day that stops, you have to stop doing this for a living—you have to have that drive.”
The Cowell entertainment juggernaut rolls on.