The crowded world of competitive singing shows



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Simon Cowell likely expected "The X Factor" would be an immediate hit when it came to American shores. He's likely wrong. -- Image courtesy of deadline.com

He likely never saw it coming.

When Simon Cowell left “American Idol” at the end of last season to launch his hit British series, “The X Factor,” here in the States, few questioned that it was a shrewd move for the superproducer to make. “Idol” had lost much of its buzzy luster after lovable lunatic Paula Abdul departed, and her replacement, Ellen DeGeneres, failed to make an impression with the public.

The marketplace seemed primed for a new kind of reality talent competition, one that would shake up the formula and maybe take the place of “Idol” the way “X Factor” took the place of “Popstars” in the United Kingdom. 

Throw in an insane-sounding prize package, including a $5 million recording contract with Sony Music Entertainment and the proven experience and magnetic television presence of Cowell, and it seemed as though “X Factor” was poised to take over.

But a funny thing happened while “The X Factor” was in development: The landscape became unexpectedly hostile.

Enter the new challengers to Simon Cowell’s nascent project: NBC’s buzzy upstart, “The Voice,” and an unexpectedly resurgent “Idol.”

NBC was no doubt hoping Mark Burnett-produced “The Voice” would capitalize on a potentially wounded “Idol.” Based on a format from the Netherlands, “The Voice” actually has its judges/mentors (called “vocal coaches”) face away from auditioners as they start to sing, and their chairs only turn to face the singer if the coaches want to move the auditioner through. It’s a strong concept — and in line with the vocals-first mantra of NBC’s surprise summer hit “The Sing-Off” — but it could have been easily ignored by the public. 

Producers made sure that didn’t happen by signing four extremely recognizable names for the panel of coaches: Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Christina Aguilera. News of the signings made a big splash online, and while that may not necessarily translate into viewership, it took attention away from fervid speculation about the casting of “X Factor” mentors. It also removed a number of potential mentors from the equation.

On the home front, the changes “Idol” made in the off-season — booting Kara DioGuardi, hiring Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and part-time mentor Jimmy Iovine — were unexpectedly well-received by the public and the press. Against all odds, the chemistry of the panel really, really works. J. Lo especially is a revelation; sympathetic and critical in perfect measure, this is easily her best career move in a decade. Sure, the talent is not markedly better than other recent seasons, but ratings have shored up, and it still wipes the floor with the competition Wednesday and Thursday nights. Suddenly it looks less like “X Factor” can be a replacement for “Idol” and more like the newcomer will be a diversion for fans of the veteran program.

Simon just announced Def Jam executive L.A. Reid as one of the “X Factor” mentors, which is a good start. But to compete with the shiny newness of “The Voice” and the fresh vigor of “Idol”’s current season, he’ll need two more shrewd picks (Nicki Minaj is rumored to be in talks for a slot), a hell of a marketing push this summer and, you know, some talented contestants. If he can do that, he may just have the nation talking about his show yet again.

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