The X Factor: Simon Cowell's Softer Side

Categories: TV Party

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Wednesday night, Fox's highly-anticipated The X Factor debuted, and though as of this writing I was unable to find any ratings numbers I have to imagine they were stellar. Not too good - Ed.

Simon Cowell has massive appeal, and even if numbers continue to decline throughout the season, I expect the premiere of The X Factor will have drawn an impressive number of viewers. In addition to Cowell, the celebrity panel includes his old Idol foil Paula Abdul, record producer/kingmaker L.A. Reid, and former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole ... no wait, she is booted halfway through this premiere episode in favor of former Pussycat Doll Nicole Sherzinger.

The replacement has been explained, variously, as a result of Cole's difficult-to-understand accent (I understood her), her relative anonymity among Americans (is Nicole Sherzinger more famous?), and finally, a "lack of chemistry" with Paula Abdul.

The X Factor, American Idol, and The Voice are an incestuous little trio of singing competitions. American Idol started as Pop Idol in Britain but then moved to America; Cowell became a judge on American Idol but launched The X Factor back in the UK. Last season NBC premiered The Voice, which was the U.S.'s answer to The X Factor ... until the last night, when The X Factor made its American debut.

You follow?

The Premise: If you watched The Voice, you have a general idea about the premise for The X Factor. Prospective contestants perform in front of a live audience and four judges. In these early rounds, three out of four "yes" votes from the judges gets a contestant through to something called "boot camp." In boot camp, contestants will be sorted into four teams, and each team will be mentored by one of the judges. Ohhhh! I hope there is a sorting hat.

The Prize: Billed as "the largest prize in TV history," the winner of The X Factor will take home a $5 million recording contract and his or her own Pepsi commercial. The show underscores the awesomeness of this last prize with a retrospective Pepsi commercial with footage from stars past: Michael, Britney, Kanye, et al.

The Premiere: I was ready to snark and snark and snark, but the truth is I am a sucker for a well-constructed reality singing competition. Cowell knows what he's doing - this isn't his first rodeo, after all - and as long as you can fast forward through the commercials, The X Factor transcends "bearable" and becomes positively watchable.

There is plenty of raw talent, and we see more good singing than bad. One of the reasons I gave up on American Idol years ago was the interminable audition rounds featuring the worst of the worst. Sure, a weirdo or two makes it more fun, but I can't invest four hours a week watching bad singers embarrass themselves. The X Factor is fun, with the right mix of humor, hyperbole, and humanity.

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