The ninth season of 'American Idol' is set to premiere on Jan. 12, but lately the show's buzz has had nothing to do with the singing competition -- not when there's so much movement behind the judges' table.
Speculation has reached fever pitch regarding music mogul Simon Cowell's rumored departure from 'Idol' following the expiration of his contract in 2011, but a recent comment from Cowell's brother has added fuel to the fire that everyone's favorite grumpy judge might abandon the show at the end of this season, "to concentrate on bringing the American version of 'X-Factor' to U.S. TV in 2011," Tony Cowell reportedly revealed on his weekly podcast.
But what is this 'X-Factor,' you may ask, and would crotchety Cowell really consider leaving the show that made him a household name on this side of the Atlantic?
The answer to that second question is ... maybe. On the surface, 'The X-Factor' is just another singing contest in a similar vein to 'AI' -- the cringeworthy audition process still remains, the viewing public votes, and weekly themes are often rolled out for novelty appeal (including the obligatory Michael Jackson playbook that always rears its head on 'AI', and songs from movie soundtracks).
But the two talent competitions aren't identical twins. 'The X-Factor' was created by Cowell in 2003 to replace 'Pop Idol,' the UK show that spawned 'AI' and a slew of other imitators -- partially because of 'PI''s limited success in record sales and ratings in its second season, but mostly because Cowell wanted to produce a show that gave him complete creative control ('Idol' is produced by fellow music industry heavyweight Simon Fuller).
Now it appears Cowell is taking the same approach again, going from judging to showrunning; and while we admit it's a little mercenary to throw one show under the bus in favor of a bigger paycheck, we've got to admire Cowell's nerve. And, let's face it -- 'AI' is going to be pretty snore-worthy without Cowell's condescending put-downs and the look of soul-crushing despair that descends on him about 10 minutes into every audition show. Why shouldn't we jump ship when 'American Idol' no longer has Cowell to steer us snarkily through each performance?
Here's a list of the reasons -- aside from Cowell's presence -- that we're ready to leave 'Idol' for 'The X-Factor':
'X-Factor' Has Better Celeb Guests: Simon Cowell has considerable pull in the music biz. As producer and exec of Syco Records, he's been responsible for launching the careers of a number of chart-topping bands and performers, most notably Leona Lewis (a previous winner of 'X-Factor') and Susan Boyle (whose Cinderella story was chronicled through another of Cowell's properties, 'Britain's Got Talent'). With all of Cowell's connections, he's had no difficulty luring performers to debut their new tracks and comebacks on 'X-Factor'; some of this year's celebrity guests included Whitney Houston (complete with wardrobe malfunction), Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Paul McCartney.
Four Contestant Categories Keep Things Interesting: Sure, solo singers are fine, if vanilla's your favorite ice cream flavor, but we think variety is the spice of life. 'X-Factor' contestants are split up into four groups: Boys 16-24, Girls 16-24, Over 25s and Groups, giving older performers and friends or sibling teams their chance at the spotlight, too.
'X-Factor' Judges Serve as Mentors: Instead of just handing out tired critiques about sounding "pitchy" or complimenting a singer's clothing when there's nothing else to say, the 'X-Factor' judges are forced to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to grooming the future superstars. Each judge oversees one of the four competitor categories and is responsible for choosing the three acts to move into the main competition's Top 12 before the public starts to vote, going so far as to pick their songs for them (no more criticizing contestants for dubious song choices!) and advising them how to stage their performances. It may seem like total bias -- and it is -- but the judging is so much juicier when personal opinions get involved.
Simon Has Full Creative Control: Say what you want about Mr. Nasty, he is an undeniably savvy businessman and knows how to give an audience things they never even knew that they wanted. Case in point: the way he's molded Susan Boyle into a global superstar with nothing but a raised eyebrow and a little lipstick. While the move might contribute to Cowell's megalomania and delusions of grandeur, he undoubtedly knows how to put on a show.
Simon Prefers Paula to Ellen, and So Do We: Don't get us wrong, Ellen DeGeneres is a hilarious host, but as far as her qualifications to judge a singing competition go, she sounds a little off-key. Cowell has remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped on his opinion of DeGeneres joining the 'Idol' team, which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement; and rumors have been circulating since Paula Abdul's unexpected 'Idol' exit that our favorite nutty judge is a firm favorite to join Cowell on the 'X-Factor' roster. We can't wait to see what kinds of costumes and arrangements she might subject her contestants to, or what Simon's reactions would be.
24 Other Countries Can't Be Wrong? Forget Perez Hilton's naysaying that a U.S. version of 'X-Factor' won't replicate the UK show's success. OK, so maybe it won't score 50 percent of the country's viewership, but 'American Idol' remains America's most-watched show, and there's no reason 'X-Factor' couldn't usurp that title with a fresh format and a new crop of talent. The 'X-Factor' template has been transplanted to more than 20 different countries where it continues to be a ratings juggernaut, and if anyone knows how to simultaneously charm and infuriate the US public, it's Simon Cowell.
We Just Love Those British Accents: An awful lot of ladies (and probably a fair share of gentlemen) are happy to listen to Simon spewing insults and derision at a bevy of quivering wannabes as long as he continues to do it in that classy English lilt. And if rumors are to be believed, Cowell wants to bring fellow 'X-Factor' UK judges Cheryl Cole and Louis Walsh with him when he makes the switch in 2011. DigitalSpy reports that Cowell thinks singer Cole's "down-to-earth Northern charm will appeal to the American public," while music producer and manager Louis Walsh has that grumpy Irish thing going for him. We're not certain if three British judges and only one American will appeal to audiences Stateside, but a lot can change before the show premieres.
It's worth noting that, while rumors of Cowell leaving 'Idol' have been rampant for a couple of years, even before the unpopular addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi last season and Abdul's departure this summer, no official announcements have been made and no deals have been signed -- yet.
Cowell has refused to comment on the speculation, though a recent report from THR indicates that Fox is still banking on 'Idol''s longevity despite falling ratings: The network is in talks to renew the show for another three years after its 2011 contract expires -- regardless of Cowell's involvement. Fox is in line to air 'The X-Factor' in 2011 even if Cowell quits 'Idol' early, so it remains to be seen if the network will push to keep the judge everybody loves to hate for its flagship show, or concentrate on giving 'X-Factor' a ratings boost thanks to the Cowell controversy when it premieres.
Either way, Cowell will be laughing all the way to the bank.