When Simon Cowell launched the American edition of his hit British reality singing show "The X Factor" last fall, he made some pretty brash claims about what he expected. Nothing short of total, record-setting ratings domination would satisfy the notoriously prickly judge.
And while "Factor" delivered when it came to glitz, stagecraft, talent and drama (remember Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger's agonized elimination breakdowns?), the show failed to put up the kind of "American Idol"-size numbers Cowell had predicted.
With season two launching Wednesday night (September 12), Cowell has clearly taken notes and refashioned the show to appeal to a larger, younger audience with a 2.0 judging panel that is certain to grab headlines. Abdul and Scherzinger were shown the door after the debut season, and Cowell managed one of the all-time coups in reality judging history by landing camera-shy pop star Britney Spears as one of his four musical assessors.
Clearly taking a page from the competition's playbook, Cowell one-upped both "The Voice" and "Idol" by picking the reclusive, but still very popular, Spears and pairing her with one of today's up-and-coming divas, 2012 MTV Video Music Awards pre-show performer Demi Lovato. Think of it as a shot across the bow of "The Voice," which employs Spears contemporary Christina Aguilera, as well as a trio of modern stars in Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton.
Both Spears and Lovato arrive with colorful, formerly troubled backstories and large built-in audiences that are sure to tune in along with the merely curious eager to see how both will fare under the weekly grind of live network TV. Unlike the new wrinkles on "The Voice," other than more cameras following auditioners backstage and the reveal this week of two new hosts, at press time it did not appear that Cowell had messed with his show's unique structure too much.
We still expect to see contestants broken up into girls, boys, groups and older singers, a sometimes unwieldy format that occasionally fell flat. If the show is able to field finalists as strong as last year's, though, it could help "Factor" break out of the pack.
In fact, based on last year's results, "Factor" is already on track to mint more potential stars than its competition combined. The 2011 cast not only produced winning R&B powerhouse Melanie Amaro, who was initially dismissed by Cowell and then, in a stunning reversal of his usually unapologetic confidence, brought back into the competition. Amaro hasn't released her debut album yet, but the show had a deep bench that also included pintsize singer and budding TV star Rachel Crow, recovering-addict singer/rapper Chris Rene, crooner Marcus Canty and teen-swag rapper Astro.
Amaro's album is due later this year; Rene and Canty's debuts are slated for October; and Astro has already appeared on Cher Lloyd's hit single "Want U Back" and CBS' "Person of Interest." Crow has scored a Nickelodeon TV deal, released a five-song EP in June, is working on her full-length and toured with Cody Simpson and Big Time Rush this summer.
Early indications are that Spears is a bit more forceful, and meaner, than you might expect, and Lovato told MTV News last week that the chemistry between herself, Spears, Cowell and music-industry veteran L.A. Reid is "amazing."
Pardon the pun, but the one X factor facing Cowell is the competition from "The Voice." Whereas he had the field to himself last year, with the first fall season of "The Voice" airing Mondays and Tuesdays — "Factor" will air Wednesday and Thursday — Cowell suddenly has to figure out how to keep fans tuned in to a more crowded field.
Cowell lashed out at the "Voice" showrunners last week when he found out they had added a third episode on Wednesday this week to coincide with the "Factor" debut. He told TMZ that the move was "cynical, cold-hearted [and] unprofessional," especially since the two programs had a "gentlemen's agreement" to stick to their previously announced schedule.
Let the games begin!
Will you be watching "X Factor," "The Voice," both or neither? Let us know in comments below!