Uproar over Simon Cowell's 'X Factor'

Producers defend use of voice-altering technology

LONDON -- Under fire for using Auto-Tune technology and dubbed "freakshow" television by a whopping third of those surveyed, the latest series of "X-Factor" in Britain still looks like it is laughing all the way to the bank.

The seventh outing of the Simon Cowell-fronted talent show returned with a record 11 million viewers on Aug. 21, only to find itself mired in controversy over the use of voice-enhancement technology.

Fans have flooded online message boards to complain that the technology made the show's central premise fake, prompting the producers to explain that the smoothing and enhancing effects of Auto-Tune were purely for the at-home viewers.

"The judges make their decisions at the auditions stage based on what they hear on the day, live in the arena," an X-Factor spokesman said.

"The footage and sound is then edited and dubbed into a finished program, to deliver the most entertaining experience possible for viewers."

But since audience votes are also a part of the competition, many viewers remain less than thrilled.

Not only that, but polls showed that even ahead of the appearance of audition hopeful Shirlena Johnson -- whose eccentric performance drew comparison with the troubled antics of Susan Boyle -- a significant rump of viewers thought the program was exploitative.

In a survey conducted by online pollsters YouGov, 32% of those polled agreed with the following comment: "The X Factor auditions are a modern day freak show, mocking vulnerable or eccentric people."

Johnson, whose performance described as "television exorcism" by Cowell, is believed to suffer from mental health issues, an issue that producers' said they were unaware of and would "have to look into."

But despite -- or perhaps even because of -- the controversy around the launch, the show is still likely to attract around 43% of British adults this series, according to YouGov.

More importantly, it attracts around 53% of the sought-after 16-29 demo, making it a huge draw for ITV and the backbone of the broadcaster's Fall schedule, with spillover onto its digital channels.

Described by Cowell as his "baby," "X-Factor" has held onto the sweet spot in British television, consistently growing its audiences over the years and delivering solid ratings through Christmas when the winner battles -- and usually wins -- the race for the Christmas Number One single.

With almost a cool million more viewers tuning in for the start of this season compared to last year, not even the worst excesses of meanness or even -- gasp -- lack of taste can rob the television equivalent of the gladiatorial ring of its ratings laurels. Without a doubt, the biggest TV juggernaut of the year has just hit town.