Pity the poor Pepsi advertising exec who gave the green light to the soda-maker’s $60 million dollar investment in The X Factor. First, even though the show helped Fox’s fall ratings by performing better than new scripted shows likely would have, its numbers fell well short of most advertiser expectations. And now, less than a week before season one X winner Melanie Amaro is set to make her big Super Bowl ad debut (in the commercial that the show hyped as the truest indication that can ever be that a singer has made it), Simon Cowell has overshadowed the big moment by apparently engineering the biggest prime-time reset of a show since David E. Kelley fired virtually everyone on The Practice. Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger, host Steve Jones — gone, gone, gone! Having spent the last few months actively spinning the media that The X Factor was a really big success that just needed a few tweaks to make things better, Cowell and Fox are now sending the message that last season was, like the eighth season of Dallas, a giant dream that never really happened. Cowell predicted just such a “bloodbath” in a little-noticed People magazine interview late last year, and given the prickly Brit’s well-documented competitive gene, it’s no shock he’d take desperate measures in a bid to make X bigger next year. But can it save this show?
Already, there are reports that Cowell wants to find a bigger star to boost the panel (Mariah Carey is a favorite, unsubstantiated rumor in the Twitterverse). But if true, this is a sign Cowell & Co. haven’t really grasped the problem with X Factor: It’s the least genuine, most manipulative of the three major singing competitions, and the least substantive, which is saying a lot. Replacing two mid-level celebs who spouted ceaseless banalities about singers’ performances with one or two bigger celebs likely to dish out equally toothless critiques isn’t going to change that. Likewise, while we’re not about to mount a defense of the oft-awkward Jones, can anyone really argue that he had anything to do with why viewers didn’t fall in love with The X Factor? If Cowell has already secretly done a deal to get Ryan Seacrest to defect, or secretly plans to offer Neil Patrick Harris an ungodly sum of money to somehow do both How I Met Your Mother and a reality show, then, fine, Jones’s beheading is logical. But otherwise, it seems to be change for change’s sake. And this brings us to the notion that Simon’s Slaughter could actually leave Fox with the worst possible scenario next fall: A revamped X that fails to attract new audiences while simultaneously alienating the core group of viewers who actually liked what they saw each week.
Admittedly, we have no clue precisely how Cowell will shake things up and whom he’ll bring into the mix. All we have are rumors and sketchy reports — though in the carefully constructed alt-universe in which X and Idol both live, such leaks often prove to be accurate. (Abdul joining X Factor and J. Lo and Steven Tyler joining Idol were rumored and denied for months before Fox finally announced them.) But we’re not hopeful that Cowell and Fox understand the true underlying problems with the show. For example, take the predominant complaint that there was no honest criticism on the show, just an indiscriminate labeling of everyone as amazing and “the one to beat.” When Vulture talked to Darnell about it in January, he insisted, “[The judges] are being honest. It’s just not in the harsh way that Simon used to be honest.” So, honest by omission? Look, Darnell is a smart, successful (and delightfully devious!) executive. But he has to realize that the less-than-expected ratings for X and the mildly disturbing falloff for this season of Idol (and, truth be told, the way overhyped success of The Voice, which was far from the blockbuster NBC keeps insisting it is) is an indication that the one ingredient that made early Idol so popular and Cowell so popular is true, untempered honesty, and it’s missing from these two shows. Gone are the days when great contestants pushed their way to the top, overcoming brutal critiques when they had off weeks, allowing all of us to appreciate their ultimate triumph.
To be clear, nobody’s arguing that replacing judges isn’t a good idea. Paula didn’t add much, and Nicole made Paula look useful. So normally their departures would be cause for optimism. But instead, the timing of the announcement perfectly jibes with everything the show has already done wrong. By overshadowing its previous winner’s big moment, it makes her incidental, and makes it all about the judges. Last season the singers seemed like mere props, unimportant but necessary to give the four mentor judges an excuse to engage in artificial “you’re going down!” rivalry. Now it’s as if Simon has completely forgotten about winner Melanie — his singer, mind you — and barged ahead with his plans for next year. It’s like someone announcing that he’s divorcing his wife a week before their daughter gets married. Once again he’s making it more about himself than the contestants, which doesn’t bode well for lesson learning.
People close to the show have suggested that producers “loved” all that interplay between Cowell and L.A. Reid, that their battling-billionaire shtick was a big success. No, it just took the spotlight away from the performers and their performances, and the fundamental truth about these singing shows is it should be about the contestants. Adding a Mariah Carey, or even a Lady Gaga, into the judging panel mix would certainly attract some rubberneckers for the show’s premiere, if only because we’d want to know if QVC Mariah or Glitter-era Mariah showed up. But once the competition settled in, there’s nothing to suggest Carey, or any celebrity, would be willing to actually risk his or her public image by offering honest critiques. And X would be right back where it was this season, only now there would be the chance that the Paula diehards (and we have to believe there are at least a few of them) might not even show up, angered as they are by her unceremonious dismissal. (We won’t suggest the existence of a Nicole base, because even hypothetical arguments have their limits.)
So what’s the future for X? Well, the fact that ratings for the show held fairly steady throughout its unremarkable first season indicates that there’s a decent size audience available pretty much year-round who wants to watch ordinary folks try to become pop stars. Cowell will probably line up one, or maybe two, big names that will generate lots of media buzz and interest once X returns in September. The fact that we’re spilling so much digital ink on a show nobody really loved that much kind of underscores how much of a master manipulator Cowell is (damn you, Simon! Damn you!). But if Cowell really hopes to make his original prediction about The X Factor come true — the one in which he declared the show would average 20 million viewers per week and be nearly as big as Idol? Well, we can see only one way that would happen. For all the talk about the underwhelming performances of Abdul, Scherzinger, and Jones, the biggest disappointment on X last fall was actually Cowell himself. Save for a few flashes of pique, he pretty much chose to abandon his persona as the King of Mean — and honesty. His criticisms might have been more coherent than, say, Scherzinger’s, but they weren’t any more genuine or believable. He loved everything his own contestants did, and he blamed any shortcomings from rival singers on their judges. If Cowell really wants to turn around X, he’d do well to consider the lyrics from a saccharine song beloved by reality-show singers everywhere: “If you want to make the world a better place, then take a look at yourself and make that change.”