Perhaps the best news about television in recent days was the announcement by Fox that “The X Factor” will not be returning to its schedule in the fall. That show was problematic from the very start in more ways than one can readily recall. For whatever reasons -- and there were many -- it never delivered on the promise of its premise, nor the promises by executive producer and judge Simon Cowell, who declared before Season 1 that it would be the biggest and best talent show ever, and before Season 2 that with two new judges in place it would be the big hit it was supposed to be in Season 1, and before Season 3 that with still more changes at the judges’ table it would finally be the giant success that versions of it have been and continue to be in other countries.
I won’t accuse Cowell of lying -- I think he truly believed everything he said about the show throughout its three seasons. But he was way wrong on all counts.
If there was one overriding issue with “The X Factor” that doomed it from the beginning, it is that it was ridiculously overproduced in every way. Although they were months away from possible victory and could be sent back into obscurity at any time, each and every one of the contestants was treated like a rock star from the moment he or she made the final cut on one of the four judges’ teams. A giant arena filled with frothing fans cheered their every move and every note, even the off-key ones. Every time they took to the “X Factor” stage a highly stylized promotional clip that could have been mistaken for an expensive music video played in advance of them or behind them, as if announcing the second coming of Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson or Carrie Underwood. Even “American Idol,” the show that propelled those three unknowns into the spotlight and eventual superstardom, doesn’t go that wild over its contestants.
Speaking of “Idol,” the most damage “X Factor” did to Fox was to lessen the excitement of the annual “Idol” premiere in January. For the last three years the return of “Idol” to Fox’s schedule -- for most of this millennium one of the top moments of the television season -- felt like no big deal. Some of that was due to “Idol” showing its age, some of it to the lack of chemistry among certain judges at its table. But it didn’t help matters that fans of music-driven reality competition shows had just watched four months of “X Factor” -- or for that matter, NBC’s “The Voice,” another show that might benefit a bit from the termination of “X Factor.
Of course, no longer having “X Factor” on its fall schedule is going to create as many problems for Fox as it is apt to fix, because despite all the “Factor” bashing that critics have indulged in these last three years, and although it never became the king-sized hit Fox had hoped it would be, “Factor” nevertheless outperformed many of the comedies and dramas that Fox had tried to launch during its traditionally tumultuous fall seasons for as far back as I can remember. The failure of those Fox fumbles can be attributed in part to the fact that many of them simply weren’t very good. But it hasn’t helped that Fox’s baseball coverage has routinely interrupted whatever flow or build those fragile fall freshmen may have been developing. “Factor” managed to work before, during and after Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series because it was easy to expand, contract and move around. And through it all the ratings for “Factor” were a good deal higher than several other Fox shows, not to mention many shows on competing broadcast and cable networks.
Why does “The X Factor” continue to work so well in other countries but not here? Why has the British version produced superstar acts like One Direction that do so well in the United States while the American version failed to give us a single household name? (The latter question may also be asked of “The Voice.” “American Idol,” by contrast, continues to make minor celebrities and major stars out of many of the kids who move through it.) Why is Cowell seemingly crucial to the success of “American Idol” here and “The X Factor” in Britain? (According to published reports, the British version has suffered in quality these last three years, while Cowell has been busy here. Never having seen the British version, I can’t speculate as to why. But he’s returning to that show, so all may once again be well across the pond.)
Lastly, why couldn’t Cowell pump up the American “X Factor” in the same way?
Who really cares? It will be interesting to see what Fox comes up with in the way of new fall programming later this year, as the loss of “X Factor” opens up at least three hours a week. And it will be interesting to see if “American Idol” enjoys any residual benefit this season or next now that it is the only singing competition on its network. It certainly seems as though one is enough.