"We found I think its own identity this year. It is like the thinking person's American Idol," Cowell told reporters during a recent conference call about American Inventor's upcoming second season. "I mean it's not a bunch of singers trying to be famous, these are people who have given up thousands and thousands of dollars -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars -- all in the hope that this show is going to rescue them. So it's both funny and sad... sometimes actually quite tragic. But it's a brilliantly made show this time around and I'm quite proud of it."
One of the major reasons Cowell said American Inventor will be better when it makes its second season premiere on Wednesday, June 6 at 9PM ET/PT is because its judging panel will feature three new members. First season judges Ed Evangelista, Mary Lou Quinlan and Doug Hall are out and were replaced by former heavyweight boxing champ and grill master George Foreman; former talk-show host and entrepreneur Pat Croce; and former The Rebel Billionaire runner-up and Spanx footless pantyhose creator Sarah Blakely. Peter Jones -- an American Inventor executive producer and British businessman -- will return as the series' fourth judge.
"It's always easier to make the second show than it is the first show... And there were elements of the first show I liked and elements of the first show I didn't like," explained Cowell. "I thought it needed at least one well-known person on the [judging] panel, and the person I've always wanted to do the show from the day we created it was George Foreman. He liked the show last year, and once we got him, the whole production got that much easier... I just felt it needed a kick up the butt -- the show -- as they often do. And I've got to tell you, I've seen the first rough cut and it's in a different league than last year's show."
Cowell said due to "availability problems," Foreman wasn't able to serve as a judge during American Inventor's debut season last summer, but added the grill king was enthusiastic about coming on-board for this summer's edition.
"He's somebody who made quite a simple product... [and] I think he sold 100 million or something George Forman Grills. He made it successful, and I think he was a good example that if you believe in something -- even if it's something fairly straight-forward -- it can happen," said Cowell. "You'll see the impact he makes on the show in the second series. The whole show is glammed-up incredibly. Sarah -- who looks incredible -- very, very smart girl. Pat Croce, of course, incredible track record. It's just a much, much better panel this time around and it's more intense, more glamorous... I think it's going to make a big, big difference."
Blakely should be recognizable to many reality television fans. She finished second on Fox's The Rebel Billionaire reality series in January 2005 but was still a winner of sorts, as Virgin founder Richard Branson handed her $750,000 to start her own charity -- which she's done. However Cowell said she was a good fit for American Inventor's judging panel not because of her familiarity to viewers, but because of her previous experience as an ordinary person with an extraordinary idea: footless pantyhose.
"Sarah, in particular, the reason I wanted her was that she was running around town with what everybody thought was a silly idea and she's become a billionaire through this product," said Cowell.
Rounding out the new-look judging panel is Croce -- whom Cowell said should fix a problem that plagued American Inventor's first season -- the lack of an Idol-like Cowell-type judge.
"It was [a problem], and I think that's changed, particularly with Pat Croce," said Cowell. "The one thing we said to the judges this year was, 'You've got to remember, you've got a lot of lives in your hands here, and they've got a lot of money at stake, both in terms of what they can win and what they've got on the table in terms of their investment. So you've got to treat this as if it was your day job.' I mean George Foreman is unbelievably supportive to everybody because he's that kind of guy, and Pat in particular is the voice of reason... I think between Pat and Peter, they're quite tough to please. But that's what we needed on the show this year. We didn't ask them to play a role. We didn't ask them to be mean or anything like that... We just said [to the judges], 'Between you, you're all worth about $3 billion, just do what you do in your day job and play it straight.' And that's what they've done and they're a tough act to please."
As for its cast of creators, Cowell said American Inventor'ssecond-season casting calls could rival Idol's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" auditions that have become a favorite of viewers for their train-wreck quality.
"I would say 70% of the people who are on [American Inventor 2's first audition episode] are probably insane. I've never seen anything so weird in all my life... Everything was weird," he said. "They all come in with these strange ideas and amazingly, they've all got normal jobs and they've invented what they think are incredible ideas."
Cowell specifically referenced an American Inventor 2 hopeful who actually auditioned with a design for the wheel.
"That's what you get on a show like this," he said. "You get lots of people who are so blind to anything other than their invention, they don't take no for an answer. But in a way, I think it's more tragic then Idol because they've spent so much money trying to get these things made or developed. And when they get a no it's horrible. It's actually quite uncomfortable to watch in parts."
The first six episodes of the reality competition series will take place on the road, with a finalist from each of the six audition cities chosen each week. American Inventor's seventh episode will be a special two-hour broadcast that focuses on the six finalists as they construct their prototypes and deliver them to the judges, who will then reveal three finalists. Viewers will then pick their favorite invention, with the winner receiving $1 million dollars and the opportunity to market their product worldwide.
"I think it's a great prize," said Cowell. "They also get $50,000 to develop their [invention], all the finalists. And of course they get the product manufactured and that's really what it's all about for these people. They want their product on the shelf."
Janusz Liberkowski, a 52-year-old mechanical engineer who created the Anecia Survival Capsule spherical safety seat, was crowned the winner of American Inventor's first season last May.
"He's doing well [since he won]," said Cowell of Liberkowski. "Because of the nature of the invention -- it's a child seat -- you've got to go through months, if not years, of unbelievable safety checks. But we got a company to finance that and I understand it will be on the market within one or two years, and they're very excited about it."
While Cowell won't actually appear in any episodes of American Inventor, he said viewers should still be able to recognize his imprint on the series.
"I'm a very heavy influence on this show because it's edited to a way I like," he said. "And I believe that when you make a reality show, you've got to show the good and the bad. When I say a thinking person's Idol, you've got to remember these people are in unbelievably precarious positions because of how much money they've put on the line. So it's quite uncomfortable at times when it goes wrong for them. It's just tragic at times. But like I said, when you make reality TV, you've got to show the bad things as well as the good things. And I got very, very invested... seeing how much it means to these people. It's a brutal process I think they have to go through."
Cowell should know about the "brutal process" American Inventor hopefuls go through, as he could be considered an inventor of a different sort.
"The only thing I've ever created is shows, but it's a similar process isn't it?" said Cowell. "You've got to start with an idea, than you get the thing made, and then you hope it's going to be a success. So I kind of know what these people are going through. I mean when we were selling Idol everyone turned it down. And on this show, it's the only show available to these people. And there are literally tens of thousands of people in this country who've all got great ideas and they don't know where to go with it."