'The X Factor' looks tantalizingly familiar
A TV writer sorts through the hype, hope and facts of Simon Cowell's much-anticipated singing competition "The X Factor," premiering at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, on Fox.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
'The X Factor'Season premiere 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox
Tonight in Prime Time
I'm not supposed to spoil your viewing experience by telling you what happens on the first two-hour episode of the TV season's biggest new series, "The X Factor," which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.
But even if Simon Cowell would like you to believe it's totally different from "American Idol," you already know what happens, because you know that not even Paula Abdul, in her craziest moment, would make many changes to the formula of the most successful TV show in history.
Eighty jillion people line up to be the next big star. A few of them make it through to be seen by the four judges who try to inject some of their personality into the equation. Some of the performers are ridiculous, some are pretty good, and one or two rip your heart out of your chest and make you cry.
By now, you know if you have what it takes to sit through hours every week of the caterwauling, the frequently forced judges' bickering, the overblown sound and visuals, the audience's enigmatic voting patterns, and the annoying host's hype to get to those powerful moments. About 50 million people a week still do, if you add the viewership for the show's two nights, making "Idol" TV's No. 1 show eight years in a row.
"The X Factor" is different as follows: The contestants can be as young as 12, and there is no upper age limit; additionally, there's a category for groups. Auditions, which make up the show's first four hours this week, take place before big audiences in big arenas in Chicago; Dallas; Los Angeles; Miami; Newark, N.J.; and Seattle. (KeyArena, where auditions were held in April, is featured in tonight's premiere.)
About 90 winners go to a "boot camp," where they train and perform under the tutelage of the judges, as the field is winnowed. Survivors from each category — "boys," "girls," ancients over 30 and groups — then hole up, supposedly, in individual judges' homes for more instruction, and more are eliminated. Eventually, there's a series of live competitions, just like "Idol," and the TV audience narrows the field until there is one winner.
And instead of having big Coca-Cola cups from which to drink their sodas while the grueling judging drags on and on, Cowell, Abdul, big-time record exec L.A. Reid and former Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger will sip from Pepsi cups. The winner will perform in a Pepsi ad in the Super Bowl and snag a $5 million recording contract, which ain't too shabby, and it's not $100,000 for the singer and $4.9 million amortized in studio and promotion costs.
"The winner is guaranteed to walk away with $5 million in cash," Cowell told TV critics at their annual meeting in Los Angeles this summer.
With Cowell, it's always a mixture of hype, hope and fact, but he was pretty positive about that one. Here's a bit of hype from a promotional video Fox has sent around:
"The whole thing's a gamble," the mean judge says.
In a medium where people rarely have a clue what will succeed or fail, "X Factor" is perhaps the most obvious TV hit ever developed. Las Vegas would go broke offering gambles like that.
There's another "X Factor" certainty: For the next three months, the only way to avoid the blaring discussion of the show and its judges and contestants (some in Wednesday's two-hour premiere are truly marvelous) is to move out of the United States.
But be careful where you land. "The X Factor" is already a hit in more than 30 countries from Australia to Kazakstan.
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