'X Factor' Turmoil: What's Behind the Firings

2012-05 REP X Factor Judges

From left: Steve Jones, Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul were out by Cowell (center, with remaining judge L.A. Reid, far right).

Why Simon Cowell is shaking up the show, axing Nicole Scherzinger, Paula Abdul and Steve Jones.

Nothing Simon Cowell does is ever subtle. The X Factor creator proved that Jan. 31 when he dismissed host Steve Jones and judges Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul from the Fox singing competition. According to a show insider, the decisions came out of a season two off-site meeting in the U.K., where Cowell had gathered his creative team to take a hard look at the show. Jones was seen as insensitive at times to the emotions of the contestants, many of whom are in their teens. "Steve Jones simply underperformed," says the source. Another defends him, saying Jones had "five different producers in his ear" barking conflicting directions when the show veered off script. Also axed without warning was Scherzinger, who originally was hired to co-host with Jones but joined the judges panel when Cheryl Cole exited during auditions. As for Abdul, a show source says that without her "train wreck-ness," she felt "irrelevant to the mix," and was "difficult" and sometimes "loopy."

"I was totally shocked," says finalist Stacy Francis, a member of Scherzinger's "Over 30s" team. "I know Nicole sometimes had a hard time handling it -- you need a thick skin for the show -- but I thought Steve did a great job and Paula was there six days a week working with her groups." Cowell hasn't offered an explanation for the dismissals. Jones was informed via a phone call from a producer, though Cowell is said to have reached out personally to Abdul, with whom he spent eight seasons on American Idol. "I want to say a massive thank-you to Paula, Nicole and Steve," said Cowell in a statement. "We had a lot of fun making the show together, and importantly, we found some real talent and stars." While X Factor drew a respectable 12.5 million viewers a week -- numbers very similar to those of NBC's The Voice -- the show was considered by some a disappointment, in part because it carried a $50 million price tag to launch its inaugural season in the U.S. (versus $5 million for Idol's season 11) and in part because Cowell boasted to THR in August that anything under 20 million viewers would be "a disappointment."

"Simon set the bar so high and then got his butt handed to him by Idol and The Voice," says a source close to the show's talent. "Now, instead of taking responsibility, he's blaming everyone else." Another reason for the exits: to allow an opening for higher-caliber celebrities (a la Christina Aguilera on Voice and Jennifer Lopez on Idol). Already on Cowell's radar is Mariah Carey, a devotee of sole surviving judge L.A. Reid (who executive produced her 2005 album The Emancipation of Mimi), the wife of Nick Cannon (host of the Cowell-produced America's Got Talent) and a scheduled mentor on season one until she couldn't make it after Hurricane Irene. Still, Carey's rep says "no one has reached out," and Cowell is notoriously finicky about whom he wants on his shows. Says one insider, "If history is a guide, [Cowell] will change his mind 10 times."