There has been a vague air of desperation around the promotion of The X Factor.
Simon Cowell, the show's producer and star judge, has been highly visible, selling the show relentlessly. If the usually cocky Cowell was so sure about its success, he wouldn't be bothered, would he?
But never mind the showbiz shenanigans. Desperation also plays a role in what the show is selling. It's selling hope in a United States with high unemployment and where there is a bleak future for a working class that is becoming increasingly like an underclass. If this show works, it will do so as a tonic for people who see no way out of their situation. It's not just escapism; it offers solace.
First, though, the fact is that, as a TV product, there's a lot at stake with The X Factor (Fox, CTV, Wednesday, 8 p.m., also Thursday, 8 p.m.) as the series makes its North American debut Wednesday. It takes up acres of time on Fox, when there are more competing shows than ever, and it's not cheap to make. The arrival of the show – you'll have seen the promos featuring rows of massive trucks travelling the U.S. and elaborate stages being created for the auditions – marks that point where it's no longer possible to blithely dismiss "reality TV' as cheaper to make than TV drama or comedy. In August when I interviewed Kevin Reilly, the president of Fox, about the future of network TV, he specifically cited The X Factor as a show that involves the outlay of a lot of money.
Then there's the matter of The X Factor entering a crowded field. Since Cowell left American Idol and began developing a U.S. version of The X Factor (it's already huge in Britain), NBC's The Voice has emerged and it's a hit. Plus, both American Idol, airing in the January to May period, and America's Got Talent, airing in the summer, continue to draw vast numbers of viewers.
There is always the possibility that there is competition-show fatigue among viewers. It's plausible to suggest that the apex of competition-show popularity occurred on a March night in 2006 when the number of people watching Idol was bigger than that for the five competing networks combined. Yep, combined.
The first thing to know about The X Factor is that it is American Idol but 10 times bigger, bolder and more ostentatious (upping the winner's prize to $5-million, compared with Idol's $1-million). That's not just Cowell's ego you are seeing strutting around. The show itself is a juggernaut of television hubris. Also, it's a much more expansive talent show than Idol. Contestants can be as young as 12, and there's no upper age limit. Groups are also welcome. Then, once a core of contestants is chosen, comes the mentoring process. Cowell and fellow judges L.A. Reid, a music executive, former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul begin coaching their picks to be stars.
But will it work? Probably, is my feeling. The clues are there in the copious promos and clips made available recently. The X Factor is just not another singing-competition show. It's a show that highlights the efforts of the very poor and marginalized to find fame and money through a lucky break on a TV show. The show is constructed to tell stories of heartbreak and wretchedness, and to invite the viewer to root for real underdogs – not merely the mildly talented youngsters who need some help, but the unemployed or barely working underclass of Obama's America. It's about those left behind.
The promo reels highlight two performers. There's 13-year-old Rachel, who is all sass and cutes. Asked by Cowell, "What would you do with the $5-million?" The girls says, "My family has no money. We live in a two-bedroom house, and I have six people in my family." We watch her family, in their Walmart clothes, cheer and beam backstage as little Rachel spills the beans.
Then there's Stacy, an African-American, 42-year-old single mother of two. She explains in a pre-performance interview that a guy she was involved with told her she didn't have talent. "He pushed me around sometimes," she says, as her tears flow. "I just lost faith in myself." We see Stacy's mom, looking just like Rachel's mom, backstage with Stacy's kids. When Stacy's vocal pyrotechnics shock Cowell, he says, "Loved it, loved it, love it. And I love you."
Right. Start with the love the woman needs and then hopefully guide her to stardom and riches. The indication is that X Factor is as much about sob stories as it about singing. Of course, this is the oldest trick in the book for reality-TV shows. It goes back to the 1950s program Queen for a Day, which featured four women, each with a competing story of poverty and bad luck, vying to become Queen for a Day. The Queen was chosen through audience reaction to the sob story.
The X Factor might become bigger than American Idol because it has the same charm – it's about unknowns enjoying a brief period of great fame, and it illuminates the short distance between obscurity and superstardom. It's also about acknowledging talent. And it might be another show that achieves a rare feat today, managing to draw viewers from eight to 80 years old. These days, almost no TV entertainment manages to be elastic enough in content to appeal to all ages, sexes and backgrounds.
If all of this unfolds, it won't be because of Cowell's presence or his trademark sarcasm, or because there are so many unknown, potential singing superstars out there. It will be thanks to the sob-story factor, the thing that offers hope and comfort to the unemployed, the very poor, the lost. God knows they need it in America these days.
Check local listings.