Simon Cowell is the 'X-Factor'
"X-Factor" judge Simon Cowell with fans outside the Dublin Convention Centre in June. (Julien Behal / Associated Press / December 11, 2010)
Despite the feverish speculation in Britain's tabloids about the results and about the contestants' personal lives — from the guy who may be investigated for welfare fraud to the woman whose 81-year-old grandma is a prostitute and proud of it — there's never been any real doubt who the winner will be: Simon Cowell.
The omnipresent Englishman is the show's creator, one of its judges and, as the British like to say, "stonking rich" from the money generated by "X-Factor" commercials, product tie-ins, concert tours and the inevitable No. 1 single released in time for Christmas. Over the last seven seasons, Cowell has built the show into a cultural and financial phenomenon that has exceeded pretty much everyone's expectations but his own.
Cowell has kept many details of his new project under wraps, except for naming singer Cheryl Cole, a judge on the British series and herself a former reality-show winner, as a fellow judge on the American version. (Wags here snicker that Cole's thick northern English accent may require subtitles.) Cowell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has stated that he will unveil the rest of his American judges by the end of this month.
But Cowell no doubt will preserve some of the elements that contribute to the program's blockbuster success here in Britain, where its staggering audience figures would be the U.S. equivalent of 100 million people watching the season finale — a figure that comes close to the 106.5 million who tuned into this year's Super Bowl.
From the start, "The X-Factor" incorporated a twist that critics say has been key to making it stand out from other music reality shows. Instead of sitting in Olympian aloofness, the judges are part of the competition: Each mentors the acts in a particular category — boys, girls, groups or over-28s — and therefore feels personally invested in the outcome.
The setup has lured viewers by sharpening rivalries on the panel, providing more fodder for the gossip rags and triggering some notable on-air hissy fits, as when Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy, hurled water onto fellow judge Louis Walsh in the second season. (She's no longer on the show; he is.)
"That's the defining thing compared to 'Pop Idol' and 'American Idol.' The judges root for their own acts, and the ones they don't like, they'll be very quick to talk them down," said Stuart Heritage, who writes an "X-Factor" blog for the Guardian newspaper. "It becomes a bit of a soap opera."
Reports of a feud — of course denied — between Cole and fellow judge Dannii Minogue two years ago kept Britain's ravenous tabloids in clover for weeks. Cowell's cutting remarks about Walsh and his clownish antics are lapped up by a nation that loves nothing more than a nasty put-down.
Last month, Cole sparked outrage when she melodramatically refused to make the "X-Factor" version of Sophie's choice between two singers she had mentored, who ranked last in call-in votes and had to compete in a runoff decided by the judges. Angry viewers alleged that Cole's refusal to vote was part of a fix.
There've been other accusations that the show is engineered, in more ways than one. In August, producers admitted to using technology to refine the pitch of a contestant's rendition of "Walking on Sunshine" for the taped broadcast, though not during her actual performance for the judges. Fans took to Twitter and Facebook with cries of "cheat" and "shame," while one critic said the clumsy effort sounded like " Mariah Carey impersonating Robocop."
Yet such mini-scandals haven't dented "The X-Factor's" popularity. Nor has the steady diet of sensationalistic stories in down-market publications such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, which splash even the idlest pieces of tittle-tattle about "X-Factor" participants on their front pages on a near-daily basis.
This season, the tabloids have delighted in the allegedly bratty and hormonally overdriven behavior of 17-year-old finalist Cher Lloyd. Other stories seized on how Wagner Carrilho, a long-haired Brazilian in his 50s who made it into the later rounds primarily as comic relief, exuberantly threw himself into difficult dance routines while still claiming disability benefits for a bad shoulder. (A government minister has called for an investigation.)
And tabloid manna descended last month in the form of Sheila Vogel-Coupe, the octogenarian grandmother of contestant Katie Waissel, who happily gave interviews about her ongoing work as a hooker for an agency called Mature Courtesans.
Many of the stories are cringe-worthy, but in Cowell's world, says television critic Andrew Billen, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
"What Cowell understood right at the beginning was to give 'X-Factor' a life outside television, in the tabloid press," said Billen, who writes for the Times of London. "Stations normally are protective of the image of their shows, but I don't think Cowell gives a damn. He's sort of given license to the press to write what they want, as long as they write it big."
Plenty of hype greeted "The X-Factor" when it first premiered on Britain's ITV network in September 2004, replacing "Pop Idol," the progenitor of "American Idol."
Since then, viewership has exploded, and Cowell has tinkered with the format slightly almost every season to keep things fresh. The show mixes the slick production values of an Oscars telecast with the bold graphics, dramatic background music and ear-splitting voiceover of a World Wrestling Federation smackdown.
"It's reaching a scale now where I don't think it can get bigger," said Heritage. "When you're watching it, you're just sort of bombarded with explosions. Without giving people aneurysms, I don't know how you can make it any more grandiose."
Artists including Elton John, Sting and members of the bands Suede, Madness and New Order have all criticized "The X-Factor" for churning out "boring," unimaginative music or stifling opportunities for other promising new acts.
Cowell himself, however, has somehow managed mostly to escape personal opprobrium — no mean feat in a country that routinely knocks its celebrities.
Julia Hobsbawm, who heads the media analysis firm Editorial Intelligence here in London, said the entertainment mogul has successfully cultivated an image of a self-made man whose hard work and strong opinions are now seen as badges of authority.
"Simon Cowell is one of about 20 figures in Britain at any one time who are indulged with public approval or tolerance. … They are in a very starry firmament," Hobsbawm said. "The British are entirely mercurial in who they backlash against and when. He's only safe for now. The public could decide they dislike him intensely in six months' time."
Hobsbawm herself admits to being hooked on "The X-Factor," the only show she watches with her children. She and her family will join the millions of viewers eager to find out which aspiring pop star gets a chance to leap to stardom.
But can "The X-Factor" successfully leap across the Atlantic?