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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
'Mr Nasty' in hunt for US talent
By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

Music mogul Simon Cowell's latest TV show America's Got Talent made its US debut this week.

Simon Cowell
Cowell produces America's Got Talent but does not appear
Jugglers, strippers and a rapping grandmother - just some of the wannabe performers vying to become America's next superstar in Simon Cowell's new audition show.

Presented by veteran talk show host Regis Philbin, the talent search follows the same formula as Pop Idol and its US cousin, American Idol.

Cowell, however, does not appear on screen. American Idol airs on the Fox network, while his new show is on NBC.

For contractual reasons, the British producer must remain behind the scenes.

"I was very tempted to go in disguise and judge this show," he says.

"It was quite awkward for me to be watching from the sidelines. There were many moments when I just wanted to throw someone out of the judge's chair and tell them exactly what I thought."

'Brutally honest'

But Cowell has an alter-ego on the panel. Former tabloid editor and showbiz columnist Piers Morgan appears as the token Brit who is not afraid to speak his mind.

"He sure is terrific, and he too is brutally honest," says Philbin. "He makes those tough decisions."

Piers Morgan, Brandy and David Hasselhoff
Piers Morgan (l) takes on his role as acerbic British judge
"He's trying to take a leaf from the book of Simon and it looks like he's playing it pretty close to the formula," says Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at New York's Syracuse University.

"All the better that he's a Brit, which we now seem to associate over here with that role."

Morgan is not nasty all the time, and he comes across as far less grumpy than Cowell does on American Idol.

"You're one of the funniest people I've seen in stand-up," he tells an eight-year old African-American comic called Syd the Kid.

The judges' panel is completed by former Baywatch star David Hasselhoff and R&B singer Brandy.

Unlike American Idol, America's Got Talent has few rules - which means anything goes.

The result is old-style variety show entertainment melded with modern day reality TV.

'Variety is key'

In return for a shot at stardom - and the possibility of a million-dollar prize - contestants must be prepared for ritual humiliation.

"You belong on the end of the pier, or preferably off the end of the pier," Morgan advises a particularly woeful one-man band.

Regis Philbin
The show is presented by veteran talk show host Regis Philbin
But Cowell is convinced that a pearl will be found among the swine.

"If I didn't think we could find a star, I wouldn't make the show," he says confidentially.

"Variety is the key here. You absolutely have no idea who is coming up next.

"In the space of 15 minutes we saw a juggler, an acrobat, an amazing 14-year-old singer and a 68-year old male stripper.

"Put that lot in the mix and that's the joy of the show," adds Cowell.

The contest joins a growing list of audition shows on US TV. Earlier this year, ABC had a hit with American Inventor, for which Cowell was executive producer.

"It's like anything," he says. "Whether you're making dramas, comedies or talent shows, you've got to be good."

Cowell's habit of calling a spade a spade is often cited as the secret to his success, whether in front of the camera or behind it.

"The fact that he was so candid about these performers made him a voice that you seldom hear in the often sycophantic, obsequious jargon of these kinds of entertainment shows," says Professor Thompson.

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