While “The X Factor U.K.” has launched stars like Leona Lewis, Cher Lloyd, Little Mix, Olly Murs, and of course the world-dominating One Direction, the American version of the singing show has so far struggled to establish itself in a market dominated by “American Idol” and “The Voice.” But the show’s creator and lead judge, Simon Cowell, believes the third U.S. season, which premieres Wednesday night, will be the charm. How? By focusing on the CONTESTANTS, not on superstar judges.
This is obviously a dramatic departure from last year’s “X Factor,” when the show was all about Britney Spears and her eight-figure salary. But Britney didn’t exactly work out. And similar celebrity stunt-castings on “Idol” this year weren’t huge successes, either. So, is the era of superstar judges over? Possibly…and this could mean that “The X Factor” might find an actual new superstar this season.
In anticipation of this week’s Season 3 premiere, Simon talked to Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks about the Britney backlash, “Idol’s” Mariah/Nicki feud, new “X Factor” judges Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio, and how “The X Factor” will be “more fun” and “less depressing” this year. Simon may claim that “squawking millionaire judges” are a thing of the past, but he certainly still had plenty to say.
YAHOO MUSIC: So I saw a preview screener of the “X Factor” Season 3 premiere, and my first impression was that the emphasis is on the judges much less than it was last season, aka the Britney season. Was that a conscious decision?
SIMON COWELL: Yes, it was. To be honest with you, not only am I bored of the focus on judges, but I think the public is bored of it now. Obviously the judges play a role, but people are tuning in, I think, to see contestants more than whatever the judges are doing. I think it’s right that we just show what we do as our job, but we don’t hog the airtime.
In the past few years, the trend on TV singing shows — Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez on “Idol,” all of the judges on “The Voice,” Britney on “The X Factor” — has been to cast very big names, with very big paychecks. It seems you’ve moved away from that strategy a bit.
It all became a bit of a pissing match, if I’m being honest with you: Who could hire the biggest celebrity? But I think that we have to be concerned with why these celebrities want to do these shows — because if they don’t care about the contestants and they don’t focus on the contestants, then we’ve got a big problem. Because they have to stay razor, razor sharp throughout these shows to make sure they’re not missing anything, and on “The X Factor,” they’ve got to mentor them, almost manage them, as well. So we have to have judges who are committed to the talent.
Britney was not very well-received last season, and she didn’t really do her job like you’re explaining, despite being paid $15 million. Did that backlash make you take extra care when deciding who to replace her with?
Yes, it made me very, very conscious about that. It’s about how much does that person actually want to do the job they’re being paid for? Demi [Lovato] was always very committed to finding new talent. Kelly [Rowland], I’ve worked with on the U.K. “X Factor,” and she did a brilliant job on that show. And then when I met Paulina [Rubio], we really clicked. With them, it wasn’t “How much are you going to pay me?” It was basically how much they were looking forward to finding a star. They were very interested in how well the contestants have done on the U.K. show, and that seemed to be their main motive. And that was the reason why we hired them.
Did you consider or pursue anyone else besides Demi, Kelly, and Paulina?
I met with a few people. I always meet lots of people anyways — not for this show necessarily, but for other productions, other shows we’re doing. But it was fairly unanimous that these were the judges we wanted. Not everyone was for it. Not everyone was even into the idea of me and three girls — a lot of people thought it was a crazy idea! But you try new things and hope it works. And thank God, from day one, it did.
There’s this idea that women with strong personalities can’t get along on the same panel. That stereotype was perpetuated by the Mariah/Nicki drama on “Idol” this year. But I think it’s ridiculous to think if there are multiple female judges on one show, they’ll be at each other’s throats like Real Housewives.
I totally agree with you. And I’ve got to be honest with you: This idea that some poor contestant is standing there waiting for his or her big chance, and you’ve got a bunch of millionaire judges squawking at each other…I mean, it’s actually ridiculous, if you think about it. And that’s why if this season’s judges hadn’t gotten along well, I would’ve changed them. But they just happen to like each other.
Did the bad reception that the Mariah/Nicki “Idol” cast received affect your casting decisions for “The X Factor” at all? Like, did you want to make sure your show did not have that sort of negative, bickering vibe?
Yeah, I think it was quite clear that the [“Idol”] audience was just not enjoying it, and we all like to be conscious of that. Those days of squawking judges, I think they’re over. I think judges can disagree, but if it’s uncomfortable to watch, people just won’t watch it.
Now, another thing that “The X Factor” has gotten flak for — and “The Voice” has received similar criticism — is that none of the winners so far have really done well in the pop marketplace. This of course takes away from the shows’ credibility. Is that a concern for you, going into this season?
Yes, it’s a problem, and it seems to be something that is happening with all of these shows at the moment. I don’t know whether it’s the contestants or what, but we have to get better at finding winners who are going sell records and have careers, otherwise these shows will become redundant; they’ll become like game shows. It’s the most important thing. It’s not always about the winner — luckily last year with [third- and fourth-place contestants] Fifth Harmony and Emblem 3, they are going to sell records and they’re going to have careers. But I’d like the winners to be doing better as well. We’ve just got to get better at it. It’s as simple as that.
Are you thinking the third time will be the charm this year?
It is an issue, but I had it for a couple of years in the U.K. and then [Season 3 “X Factor U.K.” winner] Leona Lewis arrived, and everything changed. So you have to rely a little bit on luck, and you have to try and guide the audience to vote for the person with the most talent, not necessarily the most popular person.
What sort of winner are you looking for this time?
I’d love a group to win the show, because I love watching the groups. There is one group actually this season who I think have a real, real shot; there isn’t a group like them on the market, and they are very, very good. There’s also an older singer, her name is Lillie; I think she’s incredible, absolutely incredible, and she’s going to get better and better and better. She’s young at heart, and she is stunning, and she’s just got this aura about her where you think, “God, this girl really could be a big star.” It’s going to be a better competition, I think, this year.
Do you really think “The X Factor” can stand out and compete with all the other talent shows on TV right now?
Good question, because there are so many of them out there. I go into it with an attitude that you’ve got to make changes, and it has to reflect the music business, but it also has to be a fun show. This year, we’ve definitely made the best series we’ve made, compared to the first two, which is slightly what happened in England: Like I said, the first U.K. seasons were okay, and the third season was when it really clicked into place. And I think that’s what happened this year on the U.S. show.
Do you think Season 3 is a make-or-break season, then?
I kind of feel that way every year on every show we make, because you never quite know if the audience is going to stay with you or not. Every production, every one of them, you kind of feel that you’ve got to be better than the previous year, otherwise people aren’t going to tune in. So that’s a kind of pressure I’m used to. But you know, I trust the audience. I trust the producers who make the show. When I was sitting there last week watching the show back, I thought, “This is as good as I’ve ever seen on any first episode.”
I know you’ve made some major format changes this season. I’ve always thought Boot Camp and especially those famous Judges’ House rounds, with the singing by the swimming pool, were integral, iconic parts of “The X Factor” — but they’re both gone now!
Yes, there was something which we took from the Dutch version of the show. It’s called “The Four-Chair Challenge,” and it replaces the Boot Camp and Judges’ House rounds you mention. When we shot it, we had no idea if was going to work. We just shot it Sunday and Monday this week, and I thought it was spectacular television; it was really dramatic, very exciting, and you got to know the contestants better. I think the audience will like it, I really do.
Some top 200 contestants complained on social media: They said were flown to L.A. assuming they would be attending Boot Camp, only to find out after a few hours of sitting around that they were being dismissed. Their complaints made it seem like the decision to “cancel” Boot Camp had been a last-minute thing. What exactly happened there?
It wasn’t last-minute. Everyone was flown in because we deliberated while they were there. We went through all the tapes. It was similar to what we do over at “Britain’s Got Talent”; we’ve always done it that way, and it’s worked well for us. I get the fact that certain people probably felt disappointed that they couldn’t have a second chance, but then again, 40 people were selected, which is still quite a lot of people. I can understand why they’re pissed off, but I know we chose the right people.
How else is “The X Factor” different this year?
It’s funnier, definitely funnier. I think it was really dark the first two seasons. That was probably my biggest concern with the show before; there was a dark overtone which I didn’t like. A lot of the stories were very dark, very depressing, and I just thought it was dark when I watched it back: I thought, “God, it’s so depressing!” And this season is actually a little bit more British in its sensibilities than the first two seasons. It feels like the British show now being made in America. It’s a lot more fun, and I think people will feel the difference.