September 23, 2011 8:33am PT by Tim Goodman
Analysis: Forget Ratings Worries -- Judge X Factor On Its Content, Promise
All of the talk about The X Factor on the day after it premiered seemed to focus almost entirely on the ratings. And with good reason. Both Simon Cowell and critics mostly expected it to be a huge success but, at 14.3 million, it was not a blockbuster. It fell into that strange category of being both impressive and a letdown.
And yet, nobody is going to cry about X Factor failing to rewrite the record books. It is way too early for worries -- 14 million is still a significant audience and it’s not like the show was ever going to be on a short leash. And, at the very least, it answers the question of whether America is currently experiencing singing-competition fatigue.
That was the worry coming into the X Factor launch, but still conventional wisdom was that the series would bow big and make that point moot. But let’s leave the arguing over ratings to others and focus instead on a few important factors about X Factor.
1. It’s nice to have Simon Cowell back on television. Seriously. Despite better numbers for the more established American Idol, it was clear last year that the judging was merely buffoonery on parade. What Idol had in popularity, momentum and habit, it lacked in tangible appeal. It seemed tired and Steven Tyler didn’t help that in any way. Cowell, on the other hand, has the gravitas that the Idol judges lack, not to mention real charisma and magnetism. He is the X Factor, clearly. And he is the show, period. X-Factor may be over-relying on Cowell a bit in this early going (especially since he appears in so many ads as well), but when the show finds its footing, he’ll be the anchor holding it steady.
2. The emerging dynamic of L.A. Reid is what might set X Factor apart if anyone truly cares what industry professionals think, instead of vote-swaying phone banks or insanely dedicated followers. In the early years, Idol was always one slightly emotional clown performing the duties of a sweet babysitter – Paula Abdul; and one guy not really saying anything that seemed to matter, fundamentally, about the contestant’s real abilities – Randy Jackson. Cowell was always the judge that mattered. Randy could play at biting or blithering, Paula could be too lenient one moment and crazy-caustic the next. But what Cowell said truly mattered. If you could win him over, if you could amaze him in some way, you were truly talented. But now, on X Factor, Reid brings enormous respect and credentials as well. Sitting him on one end of the judges table and Cowell on the other was especially keen planning – they are figuratively the pillars of the judging panel while Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger can empathetically cry or enthusiastically dance in the middle. (They have their roles and fill them well enough, as far as entertainment value.) But the added bonus of Reid’s honest assessments on X Factor is that he often differs from Cowell. That respected counter-balance has never been in place before. They don’t clash, mind you – there appears to be too much respect between them. But they are surprisingly at odds at key moments (at least in these first two shows) and that adds more intrigue to the judging process. Reid’s early tendencies are to base his judgments on bedrock basics – can you sing, are you polished, do you have something about you that can cut through his seen-it-before veneer to surprise him? Cowell, on the other hand, seems more willing to see something else in the contestants, something that can be developed. (Yes, that would be the X factor.) This is making Cowell seem nicer than usual – but it’s still early. The important thing here is that for the first time in a long time, a singing competition has two definitive heavyweights whose opinions really matter. And it’s compelling to watch, even in the early going.
3. Although the second installment of X Factor, airing Thursday night, seemed to be a misstep – too many bad singers, not enough time spent with those who truly had talent, silly detours, etc. – the show is still entertaining. The producers know how to package and sell a story (though at two hours, the weight of early-season losers is taking its toll in the same way Idol does, trotting out the freak show). A little less redundancy in presenting the judges would be nice -- watching them walk out of fancy vehicles is getting tedious already. But mostly the show works, even in the tiresome but sometimes entertaining weeding-out process. There’s no doubt that competition reality shows and singing shows in particular are becoming egregious. However, a little time may prove that X Factor will be the best of the lot. Who knows if it ever overtakes Idol in viewership – and that only matters to Fox and Cowell. Right now it needs to weather early suspicions about its similarity to Idol (and right now it's only the age range expansion that sets it apart). Given a few weeks and especially once the pretender period is over, viewers will gravitate back to X Factor.
4. The absolute most important goal of X Factor is to hit Idol where it’s most vulnerable – churning out a winner with real talent and longevity. If Cowell and Reid are able to find someone in this process who can transcend the limited appeal of being popular in a primetime singing competition (think of all the Idol acts who vanished from everyone’s radar almost immediately, up to and including – most damningly – many of the winners) then the show will be validated. It will have uncovered someone with lasting artistic appeal. If X Factor can do that in this inaugural season, then no one will be talking about ratings much longer, because eventually the audience will switch over from gimmickry to the real deal. And of all the shows out there, Cowell and Reid give this one the best chance at legitimacy.
5. Lastly, after years of debating it, television may truly be at its tipping point as far as reality series go. As the field gets more crowded and less unique (or on some cases stretching too far in a lame attempt to be absolutely unique), we might begin to see a weeding out process. Does it start with the three main singing shows -- Idol, The Voice and X Factor. Who knows? But it was certainly refreshing to see scripted series top X Factor, even if this show ultimately becomes the must-watch singing show in the pack and the one that deserves the most acclaim. Television is a writer's medium. Good to see it swinging back that way.