January 31, 2012 1:18pm PT by Tim Goodman
'X Factor' Shake-Up: Simon Cowell Makes Right Decision But Puts Pressure on Himself (Analysis)
On the one hand, Simon Cowell should be congratulated for moving swiftly and boldly to shake up The X Factor – putting blood on the floor Monday night with the firing of judges Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and host Steve Jones. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s two people left standing from the original five.
L.A. Reid and Cowell were, without question, the reasons to watch. Both men are respected in the industry, they know how to judge talent and, more than anything, their opinions matter. If The X Factor was ever going to separate itself from American Idol the judging had to be the most significant factor – a statement that in essence says, “We’re going to find true and lasting musical stars, not ogle or cuddle contestants.” For The X Factor to be different, it needs to create music industry longevity in its winners, not the relatively meager lasting power of American Idol winners.
Of course, now comes the hard part.
Scherzinger and Abdul didn’t really add much but comfort to The X Factor. They were mostly loving mother hens – cheering on their favorites with gushing support and truly feeling bad for thwarting the dreams of those acts looking to go forward. And Scherzinger was a beautiful diversion when things got boring. Jones may have just been a handsome diversion without the need to actually judge anyone.
Outside of Cowell’s very real friendship with Abdul – reiterated by both after the parting of ways – all three were expendable from a purely qualitative standpoint. No doubt Cowell, who hinted at these moves quite early on, already has a list of possible replacements or, more accurately, has then ready to sign at this very moment. He didn’t make this decision rashly. He wanted a better show and when he didn’t get it, replaced the parts that weren’t working.
At least that's the working theory at this moment. He needs to make the announcements rather soon, or media outlets will sponsor guessing-game stories that fans will fill up with impossible people, raising expectations that can't be met. "What do you mean you didn't get Lady Gaga and the ghost of Elvis Presley? You suck!"
The trouble with overhauling a new show – you can’t call what just happened tinkering – is that there’s no telling how much support the fired people actually have. Not everybody loves terse. And maybe Abdul, in particular, provided a connection to lapsed Idol fans and to people who liked their favorites let down easy. Maybe some people really did want to drool over Scherzinger or tune in to find out what crazy jewelry she’d be wearing. And Jones? Honestly, what did he do wrong? He might have been boring to some people who – what? – prefer the riveting jocularity of Ryan Seacrest? Maybe being inoffensive and unmemorable was not the job requirement, but depending upon the replacement, Steve Jones may have had more admirers than anyone knew.
What Cowell will have to do now that he’s essentially dismantled a show that people were just beginning to be familiar with, is come up with at least two judges with impressive credentials or who have that, ahem, X factor the others were missing. And he needs a host who will presumably be more of a presence.
Much has already been written about The X Factor falling short of Cowell’s lofty goal of 20 million, but too many people forget that it was a hit for Fox and the network is damned happy to have it. In a saturated market of singing competition shows and with Idol hemorrhaging viewers who have tired of it after 67 seasons, The X Factor should be perfectly positioned to grow.
Cowell, it appears, didn’t think the show would take that advantage with the crew he assembled. And so he broke it down to rebuild it stronger. (And by the way, it’s worth noting that Cowell’s power is such that it appears Fox had very little input on the changes – since most networks would be too timid to take a show millions of people liked and opt for wholesale changes after its freshman season.)
By taking these bold steps, Cowell has put his reputation on the line in a surprising way. The X Factor did just fine its first season. It produced an extremely talented winner (and may yet spawn a career or two from the runners up). There was nothing to indicate Season 2 wouldn’t build on that audience – as many of these competition series do.
But the shake-up absolutely mandates that the replacements be cheered as impressive “gets” and enormous upgrades. Cowell needs to find big name replacements. At the very least he needs to find at least one person who will be both credible and liked by the audience – that latter element not necessarily something attached to either Cowell or Reid, whose harsh assessments can leave people cold (no matter how right those assessments are).
What are the odds that Cowell and The X Factor go three-for-three on these replacements? Because that’s essentially what it will take or people will keep complaining about how he “ruined” the show. This isn’t some Brian Dunkleman situation. Firing three-fifths of your show is a big, bold move. Now Cowell needs a bigger, bolder move to replace them.
So, what have you got, Simon?