AGT: Simon Cowell Breaks Down the Pros and Cons of Filming Judge Cuts During Coronavirus Pandemic

"If you could change something for the better, do it," Simon Cowell tells PEOPLE

Simon Cowell
Simon Cowell. Photo: NBC

Simon Cowell found himself unexpectedly liking the new Judge Cuts format of America's Got Talent created in response to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

Cowell, who feared "not being able to put the show out this year" due to the global health crisis, tells PEOPLE why the franchise may implement specific changes going forward after altering the "traditional" quarterfinals format.

"Day by day we were losing people as we learned this [virus] was getting out. We got out by the skin of our teeth to finish the auditions. If we had started two weeks later on the schedule, I don't think there'd be an AGT this year, to be honest. It would've been really, really difficult," the judge and executive producer says.

Instead of in-studio filming, like years past, producers found a lot in Simi Valley, California, that was converted to look like a drive-in movie theater set. Cowell, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara and Howie Mandel deliberated over two days. On day 1, they video-conferenced with the acts to announce who did or did not advance to the live shows, selecting 10 contestants to film pre-taped performances so they could determine if they deserved to move on the next day.

"I got goosebumps. [The format] was something I'd never seen before and we pulled it off. It was just a challenge and you realize there is no one way of doing things," Cowell says. "With any job, you could get into a habit of 'this is how things were done before, so there's only one way in doing it in the future.' If you could change something for the better, do it."

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The crew followed the state's safety protocols and guidelines to film in June, shortly after productions were cleared to resume. "This was one of those opportunities, we were forced to do something different. As judges, we were seeing things unfold in front of us and it was new and exciting," Cowell recalls. "I can't explain what it felt on the day but it was like, 'Thank God we were able to get back to work and everyone is safe. No performances were compromised.' "

This year, there was only one Judge Cuts episode in comparison to the four episodes in seasons past — a move which Cowell ultimately regrets. "In hindsight, now having seen it, I wish we would've done four episodes. That's my only frustration. I think personally it's an effective way to do a Judge Cuts show than what we previously had done," he says.

Describing the first day on the drive-in themed set, Cowell remembers, "It was an incredible thrill just to get back to work and then thinking, 'Is this the new normal?' People were running around in biohazard suits," adding that he initially thought "this could be a nightmare."

However, the staff thoroughly explained the safety standards and put the judges at ease. "They explained putting our own sound packs on and keeping apart. I walked around the corner and saw what they built. I did ask them to make sure the screen was as big as possible. It was incredible," he says.

America's Got Talent - Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara, Simon Cowell
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And the level of production for the performances was elevated even higher. "We wanted to find a place where they could do the best possible performance. Each one had to be bespoke and had to feel original to them," Cowell explains. "When we watched the performances, it didn't occur to me for one second that there was no audience or they're not actually in front of us. It was surreal."

Contestants and producers worked together to create one-of-a-kind staging. "In a weird way, it was the best format we've ever done," Cowell says of the pre-taped performances. "There are different ways of doing things if you put your mind to it. We have a production team that doesn't take no for an answer."

Though resuming filming and watching performances had its highs, there were also lows when it came to crushing contestants' dreams. "Weirdly, it was actually harder to say yes or no to people on the first part of the show than it was previously," Cowell says. "I can't explain it, it could be the conditions we're going through and how much it means to them. When we had to say no to certain people, it was horrendous."

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Going forward with season 15, the live shows, which are set to start on Aug. 11, will showcase 44 acts performing over four weeks of quarterfinals, compared to the usual schedule of 36 acts appearing over three weeks. (NBC will be airing a 15th-anniversary special on Aug. 4 to space out the rest of scheduling.)

Though plans have yet to be set in stone, Cowell promises one thing. "We fulfill our promise to the contestants: There will be a final, there will be a winner and there will be someone who walks away with a $1 million," he says. "We won't compromise your performances in any way to put on the best show."

With all that's going on in the world, including the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against systemic racism, Cowell says there's more pressure than ever to complete a season. "This year people care more than any other year I can remember about doing this competition. Everyone has had a tough year this year and everyone wants this," he says. "If you could make the Top 10 this year, it can change your life."

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (at 8 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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