With ratings still hovering in the modest zone, the U.S. version of Simon Cowell's "X Factor" had to come up with a way to goose the audience. And, short of firing flaming arrows at rejected contestants, Cowell is pretty confident he's come up with a death match twist that's equally "Hunger Games"-esque.
"The premise [is] instead of doing a boot camp or Hollywood week, which we've seen before, we actually narrowed the contestants down from 200 down to 40," Cowell told MTV News of the so-called "four-chair challenge" round that will make its American debut on Wednesday night (October 2). "I suppose it's a mixture of 'The Hunger Games'-meets-musical-chairs-meets-I've never seen anything like it before. Very controversial."
Instead of taking hundreds of contestants to Las Vegas as in seasons past, the new challenge round whittles them down to 10 in each category and then has them go against each other to earn a spot in the judges' house round. However, and here's where the "Hunger Games" aspect comes in: even if you are put through to the next round, the judges reserve the right to dump you in favor of another contestant.
In other words, singers who think they're safe with a spot in one of the four chairs, could be booted just moments later if someone better comes along, until all the performances are over and all the chairs filled. In the end, only four of the 10 team members (Simon is mentoring the groups, Demi Lovato the girls, Kelly Rowland the over 25s and Paulina Rubio the boys), will make it to the live performance rounds.
The format made for a rollercoaster of emotions that some British viewers found cruel when it debuted in England over the weekend, with series network ITV reportedly receiving more than 80 complaints, including some that likened it to "blood sport."
"It sounds kind of tame," Cowell said, noting that he's had plenty of complaints about his programs in the past, but was surprised by the amount of protests over the "chair" knock-outs. "It's fascinating TV. Because what happened was everything we planned just went up in the air and then the audience rioted on us. They went crazy on Paulina's decision. It was very emotional, very raw, but I think it's gripping TV."
As if that wasn't enough drama, in a preview clip, the tension is heightened by the presence of family members, who cry and freak out as the decisions are made, and then un-made. One of the most emotional moments in the preview belongs to newbie judge Rowland, who was clearly torn over who should stay and who should go.
"It was a bit more difficult because the audience was very vocal," she said. "They knew exactly who they wanted and they made it very clear to us ... I didn't know it was going to be that hard."