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

But with a production budget of $3 million per episode, X Factor -- which has been the top-rated show in England for seven years, peaking with an audience of 21 million for its 2010 finale, or 65 percent of the country's telly-viewing audience -- is also one of the most expensive programs in primetime. And since it's neither a new concept nor a revolutionary one format-wise, what differentiates the contest from its Idol predecessor -- auditions with music in front of a live audience, judges who mentor and compete against each other, contestants as old as 89 and as young as 12, musical groups -- might not be immediately discernible to the casual viewer. Where it stands apart is in its top-notch production, which includes all manner of pyro, smoke and seemingly stroke-inducing lights that ups the drama and excitement quotient significantly. The L.A. auditions, held at USC's 10,000-capacity Galen Center, felt more like an arena rock concert -- as opposed to Idol's a cappella hotel meeting-room vibe -- even with the contestant who could be your grandmother.

Fox hopes familiarity and the snarky, biting commentary that is Cowell's trademark will give the network a second Idol-size smash. While Cowell is a proven TV entity long embraced by the American public -- albeit with some loving to hate him -- his X Factor hires, which include former Idol cohort Abdul, executive Antonio "L.A." Reid, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger and British host Steve Jones, don't share his luster. Granted, Cowell, Seacrest and Randy Jackson were virtual nobodies when Idol launched in 2002, but the stakes are higher now. With the market and public appetite fluctuating as wildly as a bad Whitney Houston impersonation, nothing is a sure thing.

Except, maybe loyalty. "It's the most important thing to me, and it goes both ways," Cowell explains, positioning a pack of Kool cigarettes for easy reach while a female server sets down the three glasses -- one green, one orange, one violet. "People who work for me, even here at my home, I see it as a job for life," he continues. The timid employee barely looks up, though his words have clearly registered. "I don't want negative people or jerks around. I always say, when someone's number comes up and you don't want to take that call, cut them out. You'd be amazed at how much better you feel on a daily basis."

It's hard to tell to whom Cowell is referring: possibly Fuller, perhaps Cole or the dozens of people seeking a spot on one of his shows. "It's actually gotten really irritating," he says. "Seriously successful rap producers and music business executives phone me weekly saying, 'I have to be on your show.' They just want to be famous."

In putting together the U.S. panel for X Factor, Cowell was careful to play it close to home, choosing four individuals with whom he has a history and a certain level of comfort. Still, none is an A-list star on the level of Idol's Lopez and Tyler. "That was partly deliberate," says Fremantle's Frot-Coutaz. "X Factor kind of zigs when everybody else zags. We were quite keen to go back to the roots of these shows, which is not necessarily to find people who are big superstars but the people who know how to do this."

First to sign on was Reid, whom Cowell met years ago at a Sony function ("I thought he had a lot of class and I liked the way he spoke," Cowell recalls). The exec began his career as a music maker (he and songwriting partner Babyface produced Abdul's smash 1988 debut Forever Your Girl), later discovered and signed Usher and Pink, then ran Universal Music's Island Def Jam from 2004 until March of this year. Reputed to spend exorbitantly -- look no further than his custom Tom Ford suits (starting price: $3,500) and the reported $5 million deal he offered to jailed rapper Shyne in 2010 -- he might not have had the most profitable run at the label, but it was certainly buzzworthy. During Reid's tenure, he resurrected the careers of Mariah Carey and Lopez and brought to market teen phenom Justin Bieber.

But with his contract winding down, Reid was keen on a TV gig and campaigned for Factor, even turning down an offer to join Idol as a judge. Says Cowell, "It was a good test for him." Reid's first task, according to Cowell? Telling his minder, " 'Get me a Rolls …' What he didn't know is I had the long wheel base, he has the short one."

Scherzinger, a veteran of reality shows as a contestant (her first TV appearance was on the short-lived CW show Popstars, which she won) and judge (on the CW's Pussycat Dolls Present, NBC's The Sing-Off and the U.K.'s X Factor, after which Cowell says she tested "through the roof"), is no stranger to major-label excess, either. Her solo album Her Name Is Nicole, which she recorded for the better part of two years and wrote, by her own estimates, more than 300 songs, is said to have cost Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records millions (a label exec says it's more like $700,000). It was never released in the U.S., though to be fair, the song "When I Grow Up," repurposed for the Dolls, became a bona fide Top 10 hit in 2008. (Scherzinger's U.S. debut, Killer Love, is due out in November.) While she initially was hired to co-host with the dashing Brit Jones, Cowell admits, "Nicole was always in the frame" as a backup judge. With Cole's exit, she stepped right in.

And there's Abdul, Cowell's longtime onscreen nemesis and behind-the-scenes confidante who, despite a less-than-stellar run with the CBS show Live to Dance (10 million viewers tuned in for episode one, but six weeks later, the audience was down to 4.7 million), is perhaps the safest bet as far as American audiences are concerned. "Paula was chosen because she's got good taste," says Cowell. "No one believes me, but I actually trust her judgment."

To wit: Abdul boasts that she's correctly predicted the Top 3 finalists for every season of Idol. But there's no love lost between the '80s pop star and her former Idol employers, who parted ways after salary negotiations broke down (sources say Abdul was hoping to reach the $10 million mark, while the network was in the $5 million range). "It was time for me to move on," she says. "A ton of people around me thought I was insane for leaving, saying, 'You'll never get another job.' I reminded them about my 20 years in this business. If you hang in there long enough, you become the genius again."

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