How 'X Factor' Looked to a Member of the 'American Idol' Faithful

Did 'Idol' Ever Try to Manipulate Viewers This Much?

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Stacey Francis on the U.S. debut of 'The X Factor'
Stacey Francis on the U.S. debut of 'The X Factor' Credit: Fox

Simon Cowell needed 26.2 million viewers for last night's "X Factor" to top the Season 10 opener of "American Idol." Early word today is putting the "X Factor" audience at 12.1 million instead.

What happens now depends on how they liked what they saw last night and where the next few episodes take things.

Viewers had plenty of reasons to try the show: the Paula-and-Simon reunion, a judge-replacement controversy, an unprecedented $5 million recording contract for the winner and unrelenting hype from the Fox publicity machine. Even sweeter, we "American Idol" faithful were finally able to judge Cowell apart from the show that originally introduced us to him.

For advertisers, the stakes were high too. In an age of product placement gone wild, "X Factor" one-ups the cozy relationships "Idol" had with Coke, AT&T and Ford, making the most of a $60 million Pepsi pact and tie-ups with Verizon and Chevrolet. Pepsi has even secured commercial time in NBC's Super Bowl broadcast this February, which it will use to feature the winner of Fox's "X Factor."

The sponsors surely got their money's worth -- Pepsi a plethora of commercials, a desk-side plug from a judge, visible vending machines, fancier cups on the judges' table than Coke gets from "Idol"... Pepsi was even spotted in the kitchen of two contestants from Pahrump, Nev., by one of my eagle-eyed colleagues. The judges were transported to the Los Angeles and Seattle auditions by Chevy Tahoe. Simon Cowell appeared in a commercial for Verizon's "X Factor" app, in which he savaged competing services and called Verizon's "the complete opposite of rubbish." In fact, a press release that conveniently popped in my in-box this morning from some company called Front Row Analytics estimated that Pepsi got $6.5 million in media exposure last night from the show and Chevy $440,000. Not bad for two hours' work.

In between were commercial breaks packed with advertisers including Levi's, Google, Toyota, Wells Fargo, Aflac, Bank of America, Samsung, American Express and -- in a neat twist, AT&T and Fiat, the latter of which showed its commercial with "Idol" sweetheart Jennifer Lopez.

So for advertisers, "X Factor" seems a big success -- if it can hold its ratings . And I'm not sure it can. The problem is , watching it made me feel used. There's more off-stage choreography in "X Factor" than all of "Dancing with the Stars."

Let's start with the much-missed and originally genuine Simon/Paula chemistry. It's still there, but somehow it now feels forced. In fact the whole show feels acted out. Far be it from me to suggest that there's anything scripted (gasp!) about a reality show, but the producers and editors are so heavyhanded on "X Factor" that it makes "Idol" seem completely off the cuff by comparison.

Don't believe me? How about when Simon and L.A. Reid disagreed for the first time on a performer and the announcer cued us helpfully, "One thing is clear. A new rivalry begins forming." In case you still didn't get that , the official "X Factor" blogger @TheXFactorUSA followed it up immediately with "Fighting words between L.A. Reid and Simon Cowell on #XFactor! Who would win in an arm-wrestling match?"

When Paula bolted off the set as one of the contestants singing about being a stud dropped his pants and exposed himself, the cameras just happened to follow her to the restroom where we heard sounds of wretching, brought to you by your friends at Pepsi-Cola.

But the attraction of these shows isn't only the judges but the talent. And "X Factor" brought it there, with tear-jerkers such as the adorable 13-year-old Rachel Crowe, who nailed "Mercy" in the hopes of using the $5 million prize to build a second bathroom in her home. Or Stacy Francis, the 42-year-old single mom who was berated by a former boyfriend as too old and talentless and who told Simon, "I don't want to die with this music in me." Her wrenching performance of "Natural Woman" (ironic, since her hairpiece was the most unnatural thing on earth) got a thunderous standing ovation from all as mascara-streaked tears coursed down her face.

These are the kind of moments that made "Idol." But in "X Factor" they are overplayed to the point of becoming cloying. In playing one judging scene back, I heard slow piano tinkling music after the audition that grew louder, adding strings with each positive review until finally, as Simon adds his final verdict, the background swells with full orchestral crescendo. Then as the contestants leave the stage and hug their relatives, the movements are shown in slow motion.

Now maybe -- probably, in fact -- "Idol" does it exactly the same way. But the point is I never noticed. With "X Factor" I do, and it makes me feel vaguely dirty.

That's not to say that Cowell and company aren't entertaining. They are. Though Simon did get off some zingers -- a contestant seemingly channeling Yoko Ono "sounds as if she swallowed poison," he said -- he seemed a bit kindler and gentler in the first show (even wearing a white T shirt rather than his usual bad-guy black). He called one bizarre contestant, Siameze Floyd, "deluded" -- while still putting him through. The departed Cheryl Cole was a joy before she was puzzlingly replaced in the second hour. But the best is L.A. Reid, who is stony, tough and definitely worth watching. There was no need to manufacture a controversy between Simon and Reid, who easily stands on his own.

I'm ultimately hoping that the format -- in which the judges mentor contestants in different categories -- will separate it from "Idol," which is definitely feeling tired. It wouldn't hurt audiences and advertisers, either, if "X Factor" dialed down the manipulation. Because right now, it looks to me as if Coke's got the real thing.

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