Let’s just be honest: for a solid month, Steve Jones was awful at his job. The X Factor host awkwardly cut off the judges, treated the contestants indifferently at best, disdainfully at worst and didn’t offer the more important moments the vocal inflections they deserved. At one point, I even wrote an article calling him the single biggest problem with the reality competition show, but before publishing, I decided to wait a week to see if he got better. He wasn’t awesome in the subsequent episode, but he showed enough improvement that I held off. Then the next week, he got a little better. And the next week he got a little better, until a pattern of consistent improvement emerged. Now we’re nearing the last episode of the season, and reports are emerging that he’s about to get fired. Based on my initial opinion, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that would be a huge mistake.
We’ve all been spoiling watching Ryan Seacrest over the last decade. The pint size host has managed the American Idol stage with grace, sophistication and wit. From seamlessly bantering with Simon Cowell to building a relationship with the contestants, he’s held the show together amidst judging changes, controversies and just about every other concern a live show could possibly encounter. I don’t think it’s an overstatement at all to say he’s quite brilliant at his job. Unfortunately, his effectiveness has set the bar so high that Steve Jones couldn’t possibly have lived up to it his first season, and it’s very likely he’ll lose his job for falling short.
I’m all for canning people if there’s a better alternative. Hollywood is a rough business. There’s no tenure and no guarantees. Sometimes people need to be axed so the whole operation doesn’t go down in flames, but I honestly think firing Steve Jones may well produce a season even more awkward and lacking than what we got this time around. Here’s why.
Much has been made about the host’s repeated cutting off of the judges mid-speech. This butting in has led to plenty of uncomfortable moments, but part of this responsibility has to be put on the judges. Time and time again, Jones has warned them the show was running long. Selfishly and ignorantly, they’ve babbled on at length, stammering through their speeches without saying anything of substance. In the world of DVRs, it is absolutely imperative that live shows end on time; so, Jones has been forced into the unenviable position of either having the last portion cut off on recordings or being a douche bag and stopping them short. He can’t be faulted for doing his job, and in fact, the last few times he’s burst in, he’s been a lot better about making it look natural.
The other biggest critique of Jones’ performance has been his inability to relate to the contestants. Failing to hug them and failing to give them their proper due, he’s sent more than a couple people home without a goodbye that could be considered warm. That coldness was a common theme throughout the first four or five live shows, but last week, his exchange with Marcus Canty felt genuine, sympathetic and downright nice. A strong case could be made that his thirty second conversation with Marcus was the best bit he’s had throughout the show’s run. You never fire people on an upward trajectory.
X Factor gained enough viewers and started enough chatter this year to get a second season. Plans are already underway to audition more contestants, and the program will be back in some form. Observers and analysts were very vocal this season about something feeling wrong. I felt it too. The whole thing never quite clicked, which is likely why it was unable to pick up more regular viewers as it went along. One season of that awkwardness is fine, but if it continues into round two, I’m not positive the initial fans will stick it out. Hosting a live singing competition is hard. Jones might not have been perfect, but the chances of finding someone else better is extremely low. The choice might be an upgrade over the Steve Jones we saw the first month or so, but there’s no way he or she will be an upgrade over the Steve Jones of the past few weeks. X Factor can’t afford a step backwards.
With a season of learning experience, I have no doubt Steve Jones would improve. He’s already grown by leaps and bounds, and with months to dissect his own performance, the host would definitely take a few more steps forward. No one was more critical of his poor early effort than me, but if he won me over, I see no reason why he can’t win everyone else over too. So what if he isn’t Ryan Seacrest? The last time I checked, no one’s ever been as good as Johnny Carson, and there are still late night hosts with regular gigs.