It takes three to make a thing go wrong, apparently — at least when it comes to “The X Factor USA.” After three seasons of diminishing returns, ratings, and record sales, the fledgling Fox singing show has officially been canceled, or, as Fox’s press release words it, has “completed its domestic run.”
Yes, producer and judge Simon Cowell has tried to put a positive spin on all of this: It was announced with great fanfare Friday that he’s returning to the judges’ table at “The X Factor U.K.,” a far more successful series that has spawned actual superstars like Leona Lewis and 2013’s top-selling British act, One Direction. With a full schedule in England (not to mention a baby on the way), he can now conveniently explain that he simply doesn’t have time to simultaneously helm an American version of the show.
But let’s face it, long ago, even before Season 1 of “The X Factor USA” debuted in Sept. 2011, there were signs that the show was headed in, shall we say, one direction: downward. What went wrong? Oh, lots of things. Here’s a handy timeline:
1. That time when Simon hired Paula Abdul. Longtime “American Idol” fans rejoiced when they learned that “Idol’s” original buddy act would reunite on “The X Factor.” But somehow, that old chemistry wasn’t there anymore. And when Paula lost all of her contestants very early on in the live shows, it was clear that her involvement just wasn’t going to work out.
2. That time when Cheryl Cole was fired after only two weeks. Cheryl was already a national treasure over in Britain, due to her tenure in pop group Girls Aloud and as a judge on “The X Factor U.K.” And Simon reportedly lobbied hard to have her judge the U.S. version of the show. But after only a few audition tapings, she was unceremoniously sacked. Was it because producers were worried that her thick Geordie accent would be difficult to understand? Was it due to her rumored lack of camaraderie with Paula? Whatever the reason, her sudden firing indicated that even early on, there was chaos behind the scenes of this show.
3. That time when Simon hired host Steve Jones. Steve, a former underwear model, was easy on the eyes, but he sure had a hard time dealing with the pressures of live TV. He often seemed so concerned with preventing the show from running long and preempting “Bones” that he came across as utterly un-empathetic, almost autistically unable to get an emotional gauge on certain onstage situations. And on a show with many young, sensitive contestants who needed to be handled with care (more on that later), this quickly became an image problem.
4. That time when Nicole Scherzinger took Cheryl Cole’s place. The Pussycat Doll was originally tapped to co-host the show with Steve, but was enlisted at the last minute to fill Cheryl’s vacant seat. She proceeded to be a rather useless judge and an even worse mentor (remember that time she put Josh Krajcik in a cage? surrounded by firedancers?), and when her unwillingness to make a decision on one controversial results show led to the shocking elimination of sobbing tween Rachel Crow, she temporarily became the most loathed woman on American television. Soon, Simon was shipping Nicole over to the U.K. series, where she fared much better.
5. That time when Fox bizarrely dissed “American Idol.” Simon became a household name thanks to his nine seasons on “Idol,” so when the first Fox promo for “The X Factor” aired in July 2011 and it was basically a 180-second “Idol” smear campaign, that seemed rather ungracious. And the fact that Fox, the same network that broadcasts “Idol,” would allow such a spot to run just seemed ludicrous.
6. That time when Simon told The Hollywood Reporter that an audience of less than 20 million would be a “disappointment.” Simon was never able to live this one down. “The X Factor’s” series premiere only drew 13 million. And by Season 3, he would have been thrilled with 13 million, since the show’s audience was now about half of that. Ouch.
7. That time when the show failed to mention Stacy Francis’s professional past. Over the course of Season 1, the fortysomething single mom went from being America’s sweetheart to America’s most hated, when her professional past (a stint in the Warner Bros. R&B girl group Ex-Girlfriend and appearances in various Broadway and West End musicals) was “outed” by anti-fansite Vote for the Worst, and later by Radar Online and Perez Hilton. Of course, none of these gossip sites actually exposed anything that couldn’t be easily uncovered via a regular query on YouTube, Wikipedia, or IMDB. But the inflammatory articles still elicited public outrage over the show’s lack of transparency, and this definitely hurt the former frontrunner’s chances as well as the series’ overall credibility. Sadly, producers didn’t learn from this incident, and the same thing happened all over again with Season 3’s Lillie McCloud.
8. That time when Melanie Amaro’s album never came out. The Season 1 winner’s debut disc, Truly, was initially slated for a Dec. 2012 release. Dec. came and went. Then it was supposed to come out in March 2013. It didn’t. Now the album has been shelved indefinitely, probably permanently, after her two singles failed to chart. For a show based entirely on the premise of launching superstar careers, this was an inauspicious start.
9. That time when Simon thought hiring Britney Spears would solve everything. Following Simon’s mass firing spree at the end of Season 1, Fox paid Brit Brit a whopping $15 million to judge Season 2. I’d say she laughed all the way to bank, but that would be an inappropriate turn of phrase, considering how completely un-emotive she was on the show. All Britney brought to the judges’ table was her name and her fame. Her glassy-eyed demeanor, limited vocabulary (“amazing” was really her only go-to adjective), lack of spontaneity, and even greater lack of interest in her own contestants undoubtedly contributed to the series’ sophomore-season slump.
10. That time when Khloe Kardashian was hired to co-host. Khloe was a better host than Steve Jones, but she was still totally out of her depth trying to present on live television. Her most annoying quality was her tendency to shout every word with about as much voice-modulation control as Will Ferrell’s “SNL” character Jacob Silj, seemingly unaware that a hot microphone was only about half an inch away from her lips. It was like her teleprompter dialogue was written in ALL CAPS or something. Apparently spending the past few years of her life with a mic-pack strapped to her back, on her various E! reality shows, in no way prepared Khloe for a job that involved operating an actual microphone. She was not asked to return for Season 3 … but Season 2 fourth-placers Emblem3 did write a song about her.
11. That time when there was crying in baseball. It was never a good idea to try to schedule this show around the World Series. One night during the Judges’ House rounds, a rained-out baseball game delayed, then suddenly interrupted, and then totally preempted, one the most important episodes of Season 2: the reveal of the top 16 contestants. Midway through the show came the announcement that the rest of the episode would instead air next Tuesday (up against “The Voice”). Meanwhile, the episode still aired in its entirety on Canada’s CTV, making spoilers impossible to avoid. Season 2 never really recovered.
12. That time when L.A. Reid quit. Despite his impressive résumé as the co-founder of LaFace Records and chairman/CEO of the Island Def Jam Music Group, L.A. never brought much to “The X Factor” except a bad attitude. Most of the time he looked like he’d rather be sitting in a dentist’s chair than behind the judging desk, and that showed in his rude interactions with both the contestants and his fellow judges. But anyway, while no one seemed to miss him after he quit at the end of Season 2, his decision did seem like an attempt to hop off a sinking ship.
13. That time when Tate Stevens’s album totally tanked. Season 2’s winner actually got to release an album, but it went largely unnoticed, stalling at number 18 on the Billboard album chart and selling only about 45,000 copies to date. Tate wasn’t ever invited back to “The X Factor” to perform — something even Melanie Amaro got to do once.
14. That time when Simon hired Paulina Rubio. Paulina just may have been the worst judge in reality TV history. She made even Nicole Scherzinger and Britney Spears look astute. Her lowest moment? When she announced that her contestant “Carlito Olivero” was in the bottom two…when she really meant to say “Josh Levi.” Those names sound nothing alike. The contestants looked nothing alike. Was she even watching her own show?
15. That time when the contestants were forced to play the Hunger Games. In Season 3, with the Judges’ House segment unexpectedly canceled, the top 40 singers faced a new round … the (cue ominous music) … FOUR-CHAIR CHALLENGE. The semifinalists performed on a scary X-shaped stage in front of an unruly crowd of egged-on spectators who seemed like they belonged in the audience at a UFC match, and it was basically the most un-fun game of musical chairs ever.
16. That time when Demi Lovato gave her heart a break … and quit the show. At first, Simon and the youngest judge’s big brother/bratty little sister act was cute. But by the end of Season 3 (a season that featured Simon making a joke about cutting right in front of Demi, despite her history of self-harm), it was obvious that they kind of hated each other. Demi’s send-off, after turning in her resignation towards the end of Season 3? A nasty finale skit about her addiction to “Annoying Juice” that was probably ill-advised since, you know, she’s been to rehab and is sober now. Demi did not seem amused.
All is not lost for the “X Factor” franchise, however. Talented Season 3 winners Alex & Sierra are currently working with John Legend on their debut album, and Season 2 finalists Fifth Harmony are doing well, touring with Demi Lovato and partnering with Barbie. And of course, there’s always “The X Factor U.K.,” where Simon may find the next One Direction or Cher Lloyd when he returns to that show in the fall.
But when fall comes around, there will sadly be no “X Factor” for singing-show fanatics on this side of the pond. I guess they’ll have to watch “The Voice” instead.