‘X Factor’ TV Show Heads To USA

Look out, America. Britain’s guilty pleasure, the cheesy “X Factor” TV show, is crossing the pond.

Will it work? Or is the U.S. public tiring of Simon Cowell-powered TV extravaganzas?

A record audience of nearly 20 million British viewers flocked to the “X Factor” Sunday night finale, which awarded a 1 million-pound ($1.6 million) recording contract to painter Matt Cardle, heretofore unknown beyond his immediate circle of friends.

The British experience suggests the headline-grabbing, rags-to-riches show may be a smash in the United States when it debuts next year, even if it’s got some strong similarities to the popular but waning “American Idol.”

Cardle launched the first day of his new life Monday, embarking on a publicity blitz to try to drive his debut single, “When We Collide,” to become No. 1 on the British Christmas charts. That lucrative spot has in recent years tended to go to the X Factor winner, but last year went instead to Rage Against the Machine, boosted by an anti-X Factor, anti-Cowell movement on Facebook.

Photo: AP Photo
Matt Cardle leaves the television studio following appearances on morning television in London.

This year’s anti-X challenger is a 1952 John Cage composition that consists of more than four minutes of silence: Facebook backers argue it’s better to hear nothing at all than to hear “When We Collide.”

Love it or hate it, the “X Factor” is Britain’s water cooler show, discussed at work, on the Tube and in the tabloids. The British media revels in building contestants up only to watch them crash and burn, usually with a waterfall of tears and quivering promises to try again next year.

Bookmakers get involved too – betting shops were taking wagers on whether the “X Factor” Christmas single would top the charts even before the show’s winner had been chosen.

The show’s Horatio Alger approach echoes “American Idol.” This year’s finalists for the once-in-a-lifetime recording opportunity included a cashier from the Tesco grocery chain, a young single mother with two children, and Cardle, a painter and decorator who still lives with his parents.

“Nothing can prepare you for the nerves and the fear of the first live show,” Cardle told The Associated Press. “You’re playing to 20 million people. You can’t picture it. They’re hidden but you know they’re there, their eyes pouring in on you.”

He said X Factor’s success stems in part from this pressure – the audience doesn’t know if the performer will rise to the challenge.

“You’re on the edge of your seat,” he said. “Will they do it? It’s an intense, intense experience.”

But while “American Idol” is driven by compelling musical performances and snarky comments from judges, “X Factor” has an over-the-top schmaltz quality. Garish production numbers, complete with sexy but often bizarre dancers, back up the contestants, some of whom croak like frogs. “X Factor” judges run gossipy boot camps for the singers and scheme to promote the ones they are mentoring against other contestants. The singers themselves can include groups – which often implode or turn on each other – and much older wannabes than “American Idol,” which has a 15-to-28-year-old age limit for 2011.

Suffice to say “X Factor” has not impressed many British music critics.

“I really dislike it quite intensely,” said Neil McCormick, The Daily Telegraph music critic. “As you saw last night, you get several weeks of very cruel and contrived and sentimental TV and end up with an overlong finale featuring a couple of karaoke singers who have no chance of having a successful music career.”

He said the show has produced a series of “one-hit wonders” instead of finding artists who can have substantial careers – with the notable exception of R&B singer Leona Lewis, who has gone on to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic since winning in 2006.

Still, McCormick predicted that Cowell’s “evil genius” could make the show a success in the United States just as “American Idol” is slipping a bit.

Others in the struggling music business take a far more generous view of “X Factor” even if the music is sometimes quite lame.

Neil Warnock, chief executive of The Agency Group concert bookers, said “X Factor” is bringing young fans back into concert halls after a long hiatus.

“I think it’s absolutely magnificent,” said Warnock, who has promoted shows by Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Dolly Parton and many others. “Last night they had probably the biggest viewership outside of sports in the last 10 years. To my mind, to have that that kind of exposure for music is fantastic … this introduces a new audience to the live experience.”

Warnock said children as young as seven are getting their parents to take them to concerts performed by the artists they’ve seen on “X Factor.”

“That can only be good,” he said. “Simon Cowell is a bit of a lucky charm. I think whatever he does on TV in the USA will get looked at. Whether it will succeed is hard to tell, but my instincts tell me it will be a huge success.”