Friday, September 25, 2009


The Hollywood Reporter ran this story last Wednesday which revealed that Simon Cowell’s new deal with Fox would not only keep him as a judge on American Idol through the 2011-12 season, but also allow him to bring the format of his hit UK show, The X Factor, to the States. The deal hasn’t been finalized and could potentially fall through, but one might speculate that Fox has either made a conscious decision to begin phasing out American Idol, or truly didn’t realize that bringing The X Factor to the US – something that had been specifically prevented in Cowell’s previous deals – could mean the death of their ratings juggernaut for the past seven years. The X Factor provides fresh solutions for some of the complaints that the steadily-declining Idol audience has been griping about, because Simon Cowell specifically wanted The X Factor to be a far better show than Idol would ever hope to be.

Back in 2001, Cowell joined the judges panel on a new UK show called Pop Idol, created by talent manager Simon Fuller. The show became an international phenomenon, spawning not only American Idol but over 100 other versions in different countries, each with their own version of a blunt and snarky Cowell-like judge. But after the second series of Pop Idol in 2003 disappointed in the ratings and produced no real star, its network, ITV, decided to put it on “indefinite hiatus” and allow Cowell to launch his own show, which he would own the rights to. Thus, The X Factor was born. Similarities between the two programs would cause Fuller to sue Cowell in 2005 (which was later settled out of court), but Cowell did make three key changes to Pop Idol’s format which proved to be exactly what UK audiences were looking for, and could end up doing the same over here:

No age limits and the inclusion of group acts: The minimum age to audition for The X Factor is 16, but unlike Idol, there’s no maximum age restriction. This certainly provides for more entertainment during the audition rounds, as there’s inevitably a grandmother or two who believe they can be the next Leona Lewis, but it also opens the door for amazing talent that would’ve been shut out otherwise -- like Niki Evans, who was 35 when she appeared on series four:

Only one “older” contestant has ever won in the finals, but their inclusion may provide a greater area of interest for US viewers who have tired of watching only beautiful young 20-somethings battle it out on Idol year after year.

The X Factor also allows group acts to compete, which also expands the appeal for the audience. However, if the show makes it to the US it will be interesting to see if this category is changed to include what we’d consider “real” bands, as the boy-band/girl-group types that still chart in the UK have more or less fallen out of favor on this side of the pond.

The judges have slightly more to do and the public slightly less: Each contestant on The X Factor falls into one of four categories: Boys, Girls, Over 25s, and Groups. After the “Boot Camp” section of the show narrows the field of contenders down to 20, each judge is assigned one of the categories which they will “mentor” throughout the rest of the show. Idol usually lets the public vote at this point and determine the final 12, but on The X Factor the five remaining in each group are brought to their respective “Judge’s House” where they perform one final audition before two more of them each are eliminated. That process creates the top 12 who’ll perform for the audience’s votes. And even in the results show each week (until they reach the final five), it’s only the bottom two vote-getters that are revealed, and it’s left to the judges to decide who goes home. It’s not unless the judges end up tying that they’ll turn to the public vote to determine who’s safe. This ultimately creates a much stronger group of finalists as it tends to weed out the “What Are These People Thinking?” contestants -- which anyone who had to suffer through Sanjaya Malakar in season 6 of Idol will agree is a very good thing.

Bigger productions mean more entertainment: The X Factor is, by name, searching for talent with that extra little something that puts them over the edge and propels them into superstardom. This means the performances during the live shows typically involve a little more than just standing at a mic and singing to the audience; contestants need to prove that they can handle a full-fledged entertainment performance. Of course, in the uber-glossy world of UK pop that can sometimes lead to productions like this one from brother-and-sister duo Same Difference during series four (performance starts at 1:46, and yes, it’s totally worth it):

(Side note: The next time Cowell makes some quip on Idol about a “carnival ship singer” or a “cheesy cabaret performance”, remember that Same Difference was in his category this year, meaning he approved every single atrocity that occurred on that stage.)

But even when the performance doesn’t include dancing toy dolls or shiny helium balloons, it still feels bigger and more satisfying than what Idol typically provides. Witness this incredible version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Ruth Lorenzo in series five, which delivers all the visual intensity of a finale-night Idol performance when it’s only week five:

(Her voice doesn’t hurt things either.)

Ultimately, if The X Factor does make it to the US, Fox is going to face some rather challenging scheduling issues. It’s hard to believe that Cowell would allow it to be aired during the summer, since it would be in direct competition with America’s Got Talent, where he serves as executive producer. Fox probably wouldn’t want it there either, because it could split its target audience with So You Think You Can Dance? But if The X Factor ends up airing either before American Idol in the fall -- or worse yet, alongside it during the winter/spring – audiences may wind up feeling more contented by Cowell’s “tweaked-just-enough” format than they have been by the past few seasons of Idol. Or they could get burnt out on the reality talent show genre altogether. Either way, Cowell seems to come out on top: if both shows go bust, he’s already made his fortune. That’s a helluva place to be when you need to renegotiate your contract, and Fox may have ended up putting the writing on the wall for their biggest stake in the Nielsens.

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