'The X Factor' Vs. 'American Idol:' Who's Leading the Battle for Talent Show Supremacy (Analysis)

Does Simon Cowell’s latest have what it takes to unseat the primetime powerhouse or do the ratings tell the story? What did "X Factor" get right that "Idol" neglected? How do the judges stack up? And what’s in a name? Plenty. THR offers a no-nonsense assessment of Fox's singing showdown.

Now that The X Factor has had a minute to make its initial impression on America, with some 11.2 million people tuning in faithfully in week two, the time has come for us to step back and a take a good look at the slate of singing contests competing for our hearts, minds and, most important, eyeballs.

Does Simon Cowell’s latest stab at TV buzz have what it takes to unseat the primetime power of American Idol or do the numbers tell the story? What did X Factor get right that Idol has neglected? How do the judges stack up? And what’s in a name, ultimately? Plenty. Read on for The Hollywood Reporter’s no-nonsense assessment.

It’s called “judging” for a reason: Between Idol’s warm and fuzzy touch in the Jennifer Lopez-Steven Tyler era and The Voice’s “encouragement rules” credo, audiences were starting to forget what “judging” actually sounds and feels like. Thank you, X Factor, for reminding us that some singers simply don’t cut it, others are completely delusional and a select few might be better suited for Ringling Bros. than the record business (we’re looking at you, Siameze Floyd). Even Nicole Scherzinger, who’s received less-than-stellar marks for her performance as talent arbiter, speaks her mind without tap dancing around the point, which is: You. Don’t. Have. It. On Idol’s side, Randy Jackson has inherited the role of head critic, but the depth of experience is undeniable when it comes to L.A. Reid. If you’re an act that’s in any way derivative, gimmicky, mediocre or showy, Reid’s not buying it because he’s seen it all. In the end, it’s X Factor’s race to lose -- once Cowell picks up steam during the live episodes, and Reid rises to the challenge, and maybe Paula Abdul gets an emergency bleep or edit (also called a “dump”), all bets are off.

Advantage: X Factor. Audiences want to hear more from their judges than, “That was beauoooooootiful.” Plus: Planet Paula.

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What’s in a name? A lot, apparently, and the proof is in the ratings. X Factor debuted to an audience of some 12.5 million viewers, a respectable showing, but far fewer than the 20 million Cowell had hoped for and in fact projected. You could blame a number of factors: the primetime competition in the fall, which includes ABC’s Emmy-winning sitcom Modern Family, for one, talent show fatigue for another. But a key turn-off may actually be the show’s name because in the U.S., using the term “X factor” to describe a certain untenable combination of talent and popular appeal simply isn’t used. If anything, Americans would say, “that person has the ‘It’ factor” (a contestant said those very words on Thursday night’s episode). Almost like how some countries (such as, ahem, England) use the word “zed” for the letter Z, X equals weird. In the end, it can be construed as either a huge oversight or a necessary sacrifice for the sake of global branding (surely this issue must have come up in other territories, like, say, Kazakhstan?), but here in America, it might be part of the problem. The name American Idol, on the other hand, oozes patriotism and plays to the middle of the country -- probably to the tune of another eight million viewers.  

Advantage: American Idol. It has the word AMERICA in it.

In synch: X Factor newbies may be somewhat surprised by the overwhelming number of music cues the show has licensed – that’s the song which plays ever-so-dramatically as a contestant tells their backstory – like Chris Rene talking about being 94 days sober. From Coldplay to Britney Spears to Jefferson Starship, no genre goes untapped on X Factor. Even O-Town’s 2001 hit “All or Nothing” had a key showcase moment last week. On Idol, it feels like there’s far less music, namely because the auditions are performed a cappella. Perhaps its time for big brother to catch up.

Advantage: X Factor. But the show is already dangerously close to hitting its boy band quota.

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The host with the most…  It might be the toughest job of all: competing with superhost Ryan Seacrest, who’s made a science of -- and one very comfortable living from -- letting contestants cry on his shoulder. Then again, there’s no way Seacrest would take his hands and wipe away an unruly smear of raccoon-eye mascara from a contender’s face, so props to Steve Jones for that, which we saw on Thursday’s episode. From our own informal polling, it seems the audience is torn on the tall, dashing Welshman, and it’s not his accent that’s the problem. There’s a detachment there that’s hard to get over, perhaps he hasn’t truly bonded with these people, or they don’t get his humor, but clearly there’s a learning curve.

Advantage: American Idol. Is there anything overachiever of the decade Seacrest hasn’t mastered?

Legacy goes a long way. It’s a common tale at this point in American Idol’s 10-year run: for every winner, there are a dozen more finalists who faded into obscurity, for every runner-up signed, another got dropped… Still, Idol has a legacy, it has Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, names you can hang your hat on. It’s made a career in entertainment possible for people like Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and David Cook -- talents who otherwise would have struggled. For that reason alone, Idol has tremendous home court advantage, while X Factor, with its equally spotty success rate (most Americans would be hard-pressed to correctly ID Leona Lewis as a winner), has a long way to go.

Advantage: TBD. Because X Factor’s performance has yet to be properly assessed.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

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