Last week, American Idol reached a solid 23.5 million viewers, spurred on by the revamped dramatics we’ve come to expect in season 10—most recently, wobbly Casey Abrams’ jaw-dropping save. On the other side of the stage, freshman judge Steven Tyler has gamely assumed the role of the token wackadoodle, while Jennifer Lopez has injected the show with—dare we say?—glamour.
Her presence, in particular, continues to be somewhat of a coup for Idol, considering that when Lopez was offered a judge slot on that show, she was also enticed with a slot on Simon Cowell’s new music-competition show, The X Factor. (You can thank her built-in Latin pull for that bidding war.) And come fall, we’ll find out if she chose wisely.
In the meantime, Cowell—an expert ringleader in sonic strategy—has been patiently leaking choice bits and pieces of information about his series to, it would appear, intimidate his competition. (Lest we forget: Cowell was a judge on Pop Idol—the U.K.’s version of American Idol—before he departed to start The X Factor there. His move effectively killed Pop Idol.)
For one, The X Factor’s stakes are higher: The winner will receive both a recording contract as well as $5 million in cash. The roll call of potential judges, who double as coaches, is more intriguing: Nicki Minaj, Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Taylor Momsen, and former Idol favorite/crazy aunt, Paula Abdul. (Cowell and music honcho L.A. Reid will provide the stronger personalities and the industry cred.) And the talent pool is deeper: group acts and artists age 12 and up are welcome. Already, the open call in Los Angeles drew an estimated 15,000.
But in many ways, X Factor’s success hinges on something simpler, the very thing that made Idol a hit: the drama.
The X Factor drama includes the (preferably just-unstable-enough) chemistry between the judges. It also includes the off-screen tension between Camp Cowell and Camp Idol. (He claims there are no hard feelings between him and his former American Idol cohorts, but the bitter fallout from his U.K. shows still commands headlines that make the press drool.) And most importantly, it includes viewers’ emotional investment in the talent. “No matter what your ambitions are for one of these shows,” Cowell admitted to NPR, “it absolutely depends on who the contestants are. If they’re all useless and boring, you haven’t got a show.”
As much as they are in competition with one another, Idol and Factor are technically both Fox shows. However, on April 26, NBC will attempt to crash that frenemy-ship with The Voice (based on a Dutch program). Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton will be the mentors here in a bid for $100,000 and a recording contract. The added twist: The show—which unfolds like Dancing With the Stars, with post-performance interviews—will allow viewers at home to interact with the artists and judges in real time, as the show is airing.
Gimmicks notwithstanding, the network TV battle is largely about which show can cultivates singers’ staying power. And who are we kidding? As Cowell continues to redefine A&R and the concept of the svengali, the question of whether he can recoup returns of this record-setting $5 million gamble just might be more exciting than his show itself.