What the X Is This All About?

 Andrew MacPherson

Eleventh-hour hirings, a bitter exit, an angry lawsuit by an "Idol" frenemy. Even before the U.S. version of England's most successful TV show debuts, Simon Cowell has his cherished buzz. Now, the global reality kingpin seriously unloads on his detractors and reveals his plans to get 20 million viewers. Anything less? A "disappointment," he says

Read between the lines of X Factor's first promo, which mocks the warm and fuzzy nature of Idol's 10th season by dressing Cowell in pink cashmere and having Paula Abdul coo about a mediocre contestant's "spirit" (a la Jennifer Lopez), and you can cut that tension with a knife. "The truth is, I was a big part of Idol being a success," says Cowell. "I worked my nuts off. Then when you read catty comments that play down my role, that's disrespectful."

Add the fact that both shows are on Fox, and both are produced by Fremantle, and you have one kooky dysfunctional family. As is the Cowellian way, the pressure only motivates him more, which is a win-win for the network. "Simon is very good at this," Idol host and Cowell friend Ryan Seacrest tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And if X Factor brings in 24 million people, I'll be happy if we get 25," he laughs. "In all honesty, he wants to have that extra viewer and so do we, but both shows doing well is great for the music business and the people who are trying to make it and get their break."

While X Factor is a smash around the world -- generating some 100 million viewers with local versions in 26 countries (127 more will air the U.S. version) -- Cowell, who will serve as executive producer on the show, is entering a changed landscape from May 2010. Around this time last summer, Idol was in the throes of chaos, having undergone a public and embarrassing hunt for new judges after four years of continued ratings decline. Then its new lineup with Lopez and Steven Tyler proved to be a hit, averaging 23 million weekly viewers; a few months later, NBC launched The Voice -- also with big names Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green and Blake Shelton -- to an impressive 11.7 million viewers. So, clearly, America likes singing-competition shows. The question, then, is will they invest time in yet another one at the ratings levels Cowell wants? "Of course, we hope it will premiere well," says FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who oversees Idol and X Factor. "We all know what The Voice did, but to say 20 million or 25 or 30 … I haven't put a number to it. The fall has always been a challenge in the past."

And then there are the controversies: U.K. X Factor judge Cheryl Cole, who split from the franchise in May amid a storm of scandal and claims that she'd been axed from the U.S. version because of her thick Geordie accent (more on that later), and Cowell's tiff with Fuller. While publicly the spats have been a thorn in Cowell's side, the attention they've foisted on the show hasn't been entirely unwelcomed.

Advertisers, for their part, already are giving their seal of approval. The going rate for a 30-second spot on X Factor is in the stratospheric vicinity of $400,000 (Idol's hovers at about $475,000), and Pepsi has signed on as a corporate sponsor (in a deal estimated at $60 million) along with Sony Electronics and Chevrolet. And X Factor has music industry might behind it, too. In addition to a record $5 million Sony recording contract, the winner will be represented by Live Nation-owned, Irving Azoff-run Front Line Management. Why not a smaller prize like other shows? (The Voice's award, for example, has a value of $200,000.) "That's boring," snaps Cowell. "This is Hollywood."

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