Simon was just joking when he said 20 million! He jokes around a lot, see? (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

Simon Cowell, the once mighty lion king of reality TV, now says that when he cockily told a trade publication that any audience under 20 million strong for his new singing competition, “X Factor” would be a “disappointment,” he was misunderstood.

After two week’s of considerably-short-of-20 million viewers for his new Fox series, Cowell took to celebrity suck-up show “Access” to explain, “That was a slight misunderstanding.”

“I wasn’t saying I want 20 million for the first episode. I was saying we want to hit 20 million,” he said.

The downside of that swaggering “20 million or die” quote he gave The Hollywood Reporter before the show debuted, he says he now realizes, is that “anything now under 20 million is a disaster.”

Welcome to the Fox network press- wrangling department’s biggest headache of this fall season, Mr. Cowell.

Sadly, it appears Cowell has been neutered since the days when he strutted around the TV landscape as the reigning alpha dog of reality TV, when he was a judge on Fox’s other singing competition series “American Idol.” That may be because he owns “X Factor”and is now acting all cautiously businessman-like.

“As much as people want you to succeed, there’s a ton of people that want you to fail,” Cowell complained to “Access” about the reporters who accurately reported “X Factor’s” premiere and second-week ratings.

This is called “journalism” – which, in Cowell’s defense, is something TV celebrities are hardly ever exposed to.

“I took a bit in the neck that first day,” Cowell said in the interview -- which is not, as you might think, the first time someone has actually bitten themselves in the neck.

He did stick same neck out so far as to predict to “Access” that “X Factor” will draw in 20 million viewers – at some point.

It’s a safe bet; the finale probably will make his new prediction come true.

“I do believe — in time, because I believe in the show — we’re going to hit those numbers,” he told “Access,” adding, “You’ve got to remember,” he added, cautiously, this is a new show.”

Golly, we miss the old Simon!


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