The wait is almost over.After months of hype, a reported $35 million in marketing costs and one high-profile judge switcheroo, Simon Cowell's "X Factor" will finally premiere on Wednesday. But will it be one talent contest too many? And can the show possibly be as big a hit in the U.S. as it is back in the UK?
I've been eagerly anticipating the U.S. launch of "The X Factor" for a long time now and have been frequently posting updates on my site Remote Patrolled. As a reality TV producer, originally from the UK but now living here in the United States, I'm very familiar with "The X Factor" format and its influence on British culture. For the past eight years, "The X Factor" has been the No. 1 entertainment show in British television, launching the career of several British pop stars and one international singing sensation, Leona Lewis. So can lightning strike twice?
In case you're not too familiar with "The X Factor" back story, here's a quick refresher.
Over in England in 2001, the ITV1 network unleashed a new talent contest called "Pop Idol." The show became an instant smash, due in large part to its toughest judge, Simon Cowell, and an addictive elimination format. In 2002, "Pop Idol" relocated to the U.S. as "American Idol." That show became an even bigger hit, launching stars like Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood and making Cowell one of the richest people in show business.
Now here's where it gets really interesting.
"American" Idol was overseen by Spice Girls guru Simon Fuller, leaving Cowell as a mere (highly paid) gun-for-hire with no stake in the show or the success of its artists. As vocal as Cowell has been about being competitive, it is not surprising that he wanted to run his own show and reap the subsequent rewards. So back in England, "Pop Idol" was canceled after two seasons and replaced by the Cowell-produced "X Factor," resulting in some bad blood between the two Simons and a high-profile lawsuit (eventually settled).
The format of "The X Factor" is similar to "Idol," but there are several key differences. On "The X Factor," each of the four judges 'mentor' a category of contestant: Males younger than 30; females younger than 30; groups; and 30s and older. The show therefore becomes a contest between the judges as much as the contestants, often resulting in plenty of judges' bickering ("X Factor" judges Sharon Osbourne and Dannii Minogue were reportedly barely on speaking terms by the end of their run on the show). At the same time, the diversity of the contestants also makes the show rather different from "Idol," which these days only seems to crown white male guitar players.
One other key difference is that "The X Factor" is BIG! Auditions take place in front of a live audience, rather than a tiny audition room. And as the show progresses, it's the job of the judges to produce each of the contestants' performances as though they were staging an awards show style performance. So "X Factor" finalists get dancers, elaborate sets and complex lighting arrangements in contrast to the "static stand-and-sing" style of "American Idol."
Those are the differences. But can "The X Factor" succeed in the fiercely competitive U.S. marketplace? Back in England, the show faced little competition in the music competition genre. The BBC had "Fame Academy" (for which I produced all the live performance shows) and ITV1 had "Popstars" (a version of which also ran for two seasons here in the U.S.), but both shows had effectively run out of steam by the time "The X Factor" launched.
By contrast, the U.S. version of "The X Factor" is entering a crowded market dominated by a decade of the very successful " American Idol." Then there's NBC upstart "The Voice," which came out of nowhere in the spring to achieve strong ratings, especially among the highly coveted 18-49 demo. And at the same time as "The X Factor," NBC will also be rolling out a new season of another singing competition, "The Sing Off."
And those are just the success stories.
Over the last few years countless music competition series have come and go. Remember "Rock Star," "The One," "R U The Girl," "Clash of the Choirs" and MTV's "Top Pop Group?" Exactly! Even this year we've seen the heavily hyped "Glee Project" struggle on Oxygen, while Bravo's "Platinum Hit" was an outright flop.
Can "X Factor" buck the trend and become a bona fide phenomenon?
In large part, the success of "The X Factor" will depend on whether it can discover a true international superstar. Even Simon Cowell has admitted this will be the benchmark of the show's success. Unfortunately this will also be the show's toughest challenge.
It's been a long time since "Idol" discovered a true star. Not since Season 7's David Cook has an "Idol" artist sold a million albums (though Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert has done reasonably well), and Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery seems unlikely to buck the trend. And while "The Voice's" Javier Colon has received plenty of critical kudos, "The Voice" finale was actually one of the lower-rated episodes of the season. It could be argued that the public appetite for music competition pop stars has already been sated.
Another challenge for "The X Factor" is that "The Voice" has effectively stolen one of the key gimmicks of the Simon Cowell series the idea of judges as 'mentors' who work with their contestants and are in a competition with one another. Even more damaging is that "The Voice's" starry line up Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green is a heck of a lot more contemporary, successful and A-list then "X Factor" judges Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid.
But "The X Factor" has one undeniable ace in its hand Cowell himself. After a pitiful season of "Idol" in which Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson could barely utter a word of criticism to any of the contestants, it will be refreshing to once again hear Simon's sharp-tongued but truthful feedback. On this year's "Idol," everyone was 'amazing', resulting in a tedious series that eliminated strong contenders such as Pia Toscano far too early and neutered others such as Casey Abrams who needed some harsh truth telling to raise their game.
Personally I think "The X Factor" will be a huge hit for Fox, enabling the network to dominate the fall season in much the same way it does the second half of the TV season.
With all the hype and hoopla surrounding Cowell's new show, audience awareness is higher than for any other show this season.
The only remaining question is just how big will "The X Factor" be? Can it possibly beat the 20 million plus audience "Idol" still routinely clocks up? Or will it have to settle for the more modest 12 million to 14 million "The Voice" pulled in? Knowing Simon Cowell, nothing less than No. 1 will be good enough. But for now it's up for us the audience to decide.