It may look like “American Idol” and sound like ‘American Idol” — it even has some of the same people as “American Idol” — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is “American Idol.” In this case, it’s “The X Factor.”
With its giant four-hour premiere running across two nights on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22, the new Fox series is broadcasting its lofty ambitions: “The X Factor” wants to be the next blockbuster singing competition series. That’s hardly an unfeasible achievement. The series, which was a huge hit in the U.K., comes courtesy of Simon Cowell, best known as “American Idol’s” surly judge. His biting critiques helped propel the reality series into a pop culture phenomenon that has consistently delivered massive ratings since its debut in 2002.
“I saw the fear on my producers’ faces the other day because suddenly they realized that it has to match people’s expectations,” Cowell said recently at a West Hollywood hotel wear he held court with the show’s other judges, his curmudgeon persona seemingly replaced by an articulate charmer.
Fox is betting lightning will strike twice for the network with Cowell’s latest venture, which also marks his return to American TV.
“If [‘The X Factor’] can do half of what we hope it can do in the fall, Fox will be something to reckon with,” Fox President Kevin Reilly said to reporters in August during the Television Critics Assn. press tour.
The series — which promises the winner a $5-million recording contract and a Pepsi commercial that will air during Super Bowl — flirted with controversy from the outset. The drawn-out selection process for the panel of judges was a veritable musical chairs for months, with high-profile music stars like Mariah Carey and Fergie said to have been in the running.
Cowell shrugged off the idea that there was internal chaos. “Everyone I met, I would’ve hired — that was the problem,” he said. “I was thinking at one point that maybe we could have 20 people on the panel that we could just rotate. It was difficult, for sure.”
A decision was ultimately reached, with veteran record-label executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid and British pop star Cheryl Cole on deck, as well as Cowell’s former “American Idol” bickering chum Paula Abdul. But then Cole was dropped a few days into the job, replaced with singer Nicole Scherzinger.
The backstage friction escalated when “American Idol” executive producer Simon Fuller filed a lawsuit against Cowell (along with Fox and the FremantleMedia production company) claiming he negotiated a large executive producer fee and credit on “X Factor” as part of a settlement from an earlier copyright-infringement lawsuit against Cowell when “X Factor” launched in the U.K. A couple of auditioners have also brought lawsuits against Cowell and the U.S. version of the show over the audition process.
Despite all this behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Fox is banking on the new singing competition show, along with the big-budget science-fiction drama “Terra Nova,” to carry the network in the fall.
Larry Rosin, a media analyst for New Jersey-based Edison Research, said there’s little doubt “The X Factor’s” premiere will draw big numbers. Whether viewers will come back for more is another matter. “As risks go, it’s relatively low,” Rosin said. “It’s essentially an adaptation of the most popular TV show in the last 10 years. The bigger test is whether there remains a taste for another talent-competition show.”
“American Idol” has long reigned the genre, alongside “America’s Got Talent” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” In the last year, NBC singing competitions “The Voice” and “The Sing-Off” have also earned dedicated followings.
Cowell, for his part, seems unfazed by all the racket, more interested instead in pushing the idea that America will embrace the show and its judges — Reid, Scherzinger, Abdul and Cowell — tuning in to see their interactions just as they once loved to watch Cowell, Abdul and Randy Jackson spar.
Reid brings a business sensibility to the panel — he recently became head of Epic Records after leaving his post at Def Jam — that is more unyielding than lighthearted. When asked if he was eager for the show’s unveiling, the man responsible for the likes of Kanye West and Rihanna responded bluntly: “I am excited, but I’m not an actor. I’m not going to put on a show for you right now.”
Scherzinger comes with more willingness to entertain. The 33-year-old, who rose to fame as a member of the Pussycat Dolls burlesque troupe, launched her music career via a reality competition (as a contestant on “Popstars”) and later returned to the genre as a judge on “The Sing-Off” and guest judge on the U.K. “X Factor.” If her interaction with Cowell at a recent press junket is any indication, she’s eager to develop her own squabbling rapport with Cowell. But she remains mindful of her lack of seniority.
“L.A. and I watch the Simon and Paula show like everyone else,” Scherzinger said. “We’re really just the students. These are the people who created this stuff.”
Abdul clearly sees it that way too. She repeatedly finds ways to shift attention back to her reunion with Cowell, even equating her two barking dogs, both present during the interview, to her relationship with Cowell.
“You have to have some comfort level and familiarity for the audience, I believe, while you’re introducing new people and a new format,” said Abdul, whose recent solo venture, CBS’ dancing competition “Live to Dance,” failed to find an audience. “When Simon and I are on opposing sides, it just falls right back into that comfort level. It just works.”
When she and Cowell made their exit from “American Idol” in 2009 and 2010, respectively, many critics thought it would signal the end of the long-running franchise. But the show successfully rebooted with the upbeat vibe offered by Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
“I saw that they were deliberately going in the opposite direction of where we went,” Cowell said. “It’s a nicer place, it’s this, it’s that. Blah-blah-blah. I was happy that they’d gone one way because the comparisons thing won’t be an issue.”
But make no mistake, he’s not in this race to come in second.
“I want to be No. 1,” Cowell said. “I’m not going to sit back and say, ‘I’m really happy for them if they beat us,’” he said. “And I’m sure they’ll feel the same way if it’s the other way around — which it will be.”