Having seen all but the first season of American Idol, and now the first two hours of Fox's new singing competition The X Factor, it's fair to say that there are a number of similarities between the two shows, and quite a few noticeable differences. I could pretend that comparing the two shows is irrelevant, but that's really not the case, given how popular Idol is, and the obvious connections between the two series (namely, Simon Cowell's involvement and the network). If, like me, you were wondering what sets this competition apart from Idol, I'm about to break it down for you, sans major spoilers (Vague descriptions and a few bits of contestant information excluded.)
Before we get to the comparisons, a notable observation: Host Steve Jones appears to be holding his own, however just as in Idol, when Ryan Seacrest’s role is somewhat limited during the audition phase of the competition, I don’t think we’ll get the full measure of what Jones is all about until he’s on live television. In the meantime, he carries his part well so far and there's no reason (yet) to compare or contrast him to Seacrest other than to say that Jones appears to be as upbeat and charismatic as the Idol host.
As for what sets The X Factor apart, and in some ways, above American Idol, I counted six noteworthy factors...
The Wow Factor
The first ten minutes of X Factor alone are evidence of the dazzle effect the series is going for and it works, for the most part, though it can be a shade or two overwhelming as we ease ourselves into the series for the first time. X Factor begins as big and loud as American Idol ends, drumming up excitement through music, glimpses of the crowds, and of course, hero-shots of the judges.
While it's impossible to compare how the later rounds of the competition are against Idol, the audition process differs in a big way. Rather than the contestants filing in one by one to perform a private a cappella audition before the judges, X Factor contestants perform on stage in whatever huge venue the city’s audition is being held. In front of them are the judges, and a full theater of fellow auditioners who may or may not like what they hear and whose opinions may affect how the judges make their decision. Auditioners have the benefit of singing to music if they prefer. There's also the matter of the $5 million dollar record deal and the promise of being featured in a Pepsi Super Bowl ad, which make's Idol's million dollar record deal prize seem small by comparison.
The Age Factor
The X-Factor substantially widens the age-bracket for contention, allowing older contestants and those as young as twelve try out for the series. As evidenced in the series premiere, this results in a number of exceptionally talented young singers, as well as plenty of equally talented people who may have missed the boat on Idol due to their age. In the crowd could be the next Justin Bieber or Susan Boyle. With a wider age range, there are more great stories to be told and undiscovered talent to be found.
The Group Factor
Once in a while, two people on Idol audition together, after which they’re set to perform individually and one or both might go through. Idol is not about duets. It’s not about groups. There can only be one American Idol per season. The X Factor opens the auditions up to couples and groups, allowing whole groups of people through (or rejecting them as a group). As evidenced in the season premiere, there isn’t always strength in numbers.
The Judge Factor
If you missed Paula and/or Simon on Idol, you’ll have them back in full form on The X Factor. Paula resumes her duties as the “nice judge,” while Simon returns to the blunt, albeit not quite as rude (yet) critiquing we came to know and love in American Idol. Joining them are Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Nicole Scherzinger. The latter is known for being a member of The Pussycat Dolls. While L.A. Reid’s face may be less well known on television, he’s certainly a big name in the music business, as the former Chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group. Not only does Reid have an eye and ear for talent, but as you’ll see in the season premiere, he and Simon don’t always agree, which makes for some very interesting judges-banter.
The first hour of the two-hour premiere features ousted judge Cheryl Cole. She’s introduced and shown at the judges table as the set fixture she was supposed to be in the show, however when the second hour rolls around, Scherzinger is introduced and Cole is gone.
The Aww Factor
This not being American Idol, you may be thinking we’ll be going without the dramatic back-stories of some of the contestants. This is not the case. In fact, be prepared for even more family involvement. In addition to learning a little bit about some of the auditioners during packaged pre-audition segments, you’ll also see the auditioners’ friends and families waiting in the wings, watching hopefully and sometimes tearfully as their loved one(s) take the stage to impress the judges. It’s a bit gimmicky, but if, like me, you’re a sucker for seeing people weep tears of joy and pride, you may need a few tissues during the premiere.
The X Factor
Who has it? Is it 8th grader Rachel Crow, who hopes to win the money so she can get her family a bigger house? Or perhaps it’s Simone Battle, a woman in her twenties who hopes her “fierce”ness will win over the judges. Or Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old mom looking for a chance to let the music inside her out. Then there’s Chris Rene, a 28-year-old trash collector who’s out of rehab and looking for a fresh start. There’s a definite sense that these judges are looking for more than just singing talent. Auditioning hopefulls will need to prove they have the star quality the judges are looking for as much as the talent.A bit of dazzle will go a long way here.
In the end, The X Factor feels a lot like Idol, but there are enough differences to breath new life into the ever-growing reality competition genre. Fans of singing competitions should appreciate
The X Factor premieres Wednesday, September 21st at 8/7c on Fox.