During his purportedly "surprise" appearance on the April "American Idol" series finale, Simon Cowell apologized – on behalf of Paula Abdul – for "being so mean to the contestants."
The mock mea culpa allowed Cowell to poke fun at his image as a curmudgeon, a crucial ingredient in both the show's meteoric rise and its slow decline. Cowell's sourpuss approach to judging the singing competition eventually became tiresome, particularly after his saccharine-sweet counterbalance, Abdul, left following Season 8. Cowell's 2011-2013 stint on the U.S. version of "The X Factor" failed to approach his "Idol" glory days.
Now Cowell is set to join the panel of NBC's "America's Got Talent," which starts its 11th season Tuesday. The new gig offers a showcase for Cowell to display whether he has a talent for reinvention.
There's no guarantee or even any indication the notoriously caustic Cowell will seize this nice opportunity to be, well, nice. Skipping a shot at a little personality rehab would be a shame. Just ask Cowell's "AGT" predecessor Howard Stern, who defied expectations by tamping down his outrageous radio act for the TV show while never losing his sense of humor during a four-season run.
The savvy Stern recognized the value in not confining his performance to preconceptions. More importantly, he instinctively grasped that the large array of contestants eligible for “AGT” – among then, children – necessitated tone shifts, lest he come off as an ogre. (Stern nearly quit the show in 2012 after inadvertently making a 7-year-old singer cry.)
Cowell, who created the “Got Talent” franchise and is a producer of the U.S. version, knows how show business works. He certainly is cognizant that the chemistry he struck with Abdul and Randy Jackson can’t easily be explained or recreated. And he likely realizes the burden is on him to fit into the rapport already established by returning “AGT” panelists Howie Mandel, Mel B, Heidi Klum and high-energy host Nick Cannon.
We’ll see whether Cowell uses “AGT” to reboot his public persona, a campaign that seemingly started with his self-effacing “Idol” farewell. The home audience ultimately will judge whether he succeeds in surprising viewers – no apologies necessary.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.