Four issues to look for as Fox's The X Factor faces off against NBC's The Voice tonight
Last year, Simon Cowell had a different attitude.
Back then, the onetime American Idol star was smugly confident -- while keeping up his legendary polite charm -- insisting his new singing competition The X Factor was going to equal the blockbuster success of the show he had just left.
As proof, he told me about a phone call from an NBC executive in early 2011 assuring that the network's new show The Voice wouldn't be a thin ripoff of his Fox program (as executive producer and owner of NBC's hit summer show America's Got Talent, Cowell has irons in both fires). ""I said, 'Do whatever you want, but if you deliberately try to steal (elements) with the intention of ruining my show, then we don't have a relationship anymore,' " the star told me then.
But X Factor's debut season, though solid, came nowhere near the heights Cowell predicted, while The Voice nearly equaled Idol's rating with key viewers. So it's no wonder his perspective has changed, with Cowell complaining for days about NBC’s decision to pit an hour of The Voice against tonight’s return of The X Factor at 8 p.m.
His ire surfaced strongly during a teleconference with reporters last week, where Cowell admitted he was “p---ed off” that NBC had added a third night to The Voice’s debut week.
“It’s a spoiling tactic,” Cowell told reporters. “They don’t want people to see this first episode. I think it’s mean spirited. I hope and I pray that it backfires on them.”
His anger reveals just how much producers are counting on curiosity to reboot their franchise. With erratic pop star Britney Spears and onetime Disney diva Demi Lovato on board as new judges -- replacing older celebrities Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger -- viewers might tune in just to see how a couple of stars known for stints in treatment and dysfunctional behavior react in the spotlight.
Cowell still hasn’t announced who will host the program's live episodes, though the star has said he’s partial to using two people, admitting on comic Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime show Tuesday that reality TV star Khloe Kardashian is “definitely up there in the running.”
Still, as X Factor faces off against The Voice tonight, there are four issues to look for as the two shows air in the same timeslot for the first time.
Issue #1: How much is too much? The Voice returned Monday to 12 million viewers, but that was down nearly 40 percent from its debut in February, which came after a high profile, post-Super Bowl preview. Tonight’s face-off will be the first time two highly-hyped singing shows clash directly, running the risk of overloading fans who may already be tiring of spinning chairs, cheeky banter between star judges and heart-tugging feature stories on contestants.
Issue#2: Can Britney overcome her erratic image? From shaving her head to stumbling through an ill-considered performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, Spears has a long track record of meltdowns and personal problems. More recently, Cowell admitted the singer nearly walked off the show on the first day after a panic attack. And much as he insists now that Spears is the show's toughest judge, she comes across as disconnected and a bit passive in interviews. Can she handle the scrutiny when the competition ramps up?
Issue #3: Can either show break a big act in the United States? Cowell has a great track record of minting music stars on TV, including Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle and hit boy band One Direction. The only problem: all those artists came from his British shows. So far, U.S. versions of The Voice and X Factor have had little impact on the music charts, ostensibly their primary goal.
Issue #4: Can either show make us care about the contestants? The problem: as each show focuses more on unknown contestants and less on superstar judges, viewer interest wanes. Cowell promises the retooled X Factor will show more of the audition process to get the audience more engaged in hopefuls vying for a $5 million prize.
That may be the biggest irony: Amid all the talk of big name judges and hosts, the key to victory in this war of the singing contests may come from best showcasing the unknowns fighting for fame at center stage.