Simon Cowell, a man who thinks big, is picturing his new singing contest “The X Factor” as America’s No. 1 series.
The British music industry executive, TV star and producer wants to prove that the U.K. and international TV hit can play on what he considers the world’s top stage, America.
For Fox, home of “The X Factor” and Cowell’s former stomping ground “American Idol,” his new show offers the chance to extend to the fall season the ratings domination reliably provided by veteran “American Idol” from January to May.
The test starts this week with the debut of “X Factor” at 8-10 p.m. EDT Wednesday and Thursday. Joining Cowell as judges are Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger. British TV personality Steve Jones is the host.
The goal is never “the silver medal. You want to be No. 1, and over the next few months we’re going to throw everything at this to make this the best show on TV,” Cowell says.
Like a movie producer with his eye on a box-office hit, Cowell has attempted to fashion the ideal cast — featuring himself, of course. Could he have a blockbuster in store? Roll credits for “The X Factor” and let the public vote.
— THE STAR: Cowell, a proven brand with “American Idol” and the role model for every other talent show’s smart but rudely blunt British judge.
He’s a gunslinger, ready to shoot down the off-key and the annoying, and make the world safe for his brand of hit pop music and performers, whether that’s Leona Lewis or Susan Boyle. On screen, he can be charmingly sincere or a curmudgeonly wit and knows how to fill out a tight T-shirt.
Behind the scenes, he’s master of his fate. Peter Rice, Fox network chairman, gave him final vote on “X Factor” decisions, Cowell says, with this ringing endorsement: “If we’re going to trust you with this much money, we’re going to trust you.”
He’s a man of the people, dismissing those who question the wisdom of giving a $5 million prize along with a record contract to a winner who is likely unused to such a windfall. “It’s patronizing that middle class and wealthy people say that anyone who hasn’t got money can’t have it. I love the idea.”
— THE BUDDY: Reid, the elegant, Grammy-winning producer and executive who has helped guide Usher, Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey, and is now dedicated to helping Cowell find voices that will dazzle and invigorate the music industry.
Reid is nobody’s second fiddle but knows how to keep leading man Cowell in the spotlight. He knew the Brit was a “superstar” at their first encounter. They’ve bonded over business and breaking the rules by filling an office with cigar and cigarette smoke: “I loved everything about him,” Reid says.
Cowell’s response: “It’s a mutual admiration society.” Such heartfelt bromance can be winning.
Reid intends to use “X Factor” to find the kind of “great singers” he sees as absent from the music scene, citing Adele as an exception and a guiding light. “Shows like this are designed for talent like hers. … Pure, pure singing. That’s what’s missing, and this opens the door for that.”
— THE OLD FLAME: Abdul, the singer-dancer and former “American Idol” judge whose on- and off-screen adventures and off-kilter chemistry with Cowell make her a predictable component of the show’s promised unpredictability.
“It’s nice to be back in a demented relationship. It’s like home,” Abdul says fondly of reuniting with her old sparring partner and now boss. He’s turned into a “pussy cat,” she contends, but knows the kind of insights that will really score points.
“This is a real reality show, and you are going to get a real inside view without manipulation. … You are going to see ‘what you see is what you get’ and the good, the bad and the ugly, and I think it’s a show that really gets behind the scenes as well,” she says.
Music to Cowell’s ears. But he was sold on Abdul, he says, when she showed up to discuss joining “X Factor” and was fit, healthy, informed and “didn’t rely on the existing relationship.”
— THE INGENUE: Scherzinger, a former member of the Pussycat Dolls who brings youth, J-Lo-style glamour and her own reality TV credentials to the table as a onetime contestant on “Pop Stars.”
“I’ve been there. I can empathize with them,” she says of the contestants. “I come from a different place of compassion and understanding.”
She may cry, following the Abdul model. But even a softy such as Scherzinger knows the score. When she served as a judge on “X Factor” in the U.K., she was initially reluctant to say no to contestants, recalls Cowell. But she’s wised up.
“I’m impressed by her professionalism and her ambition. She’s a very, very ambitious girl and I like that in people,” he says.
__ THE ROOKIE: Host Jones, a onetime model who segued to TV host on British programs including “101 Ways to Leave a Game Show” and “Drop Zone,” and is making his U.S. series debut.
The Welshman, who furthers the diversity of accents on U.S. TV, has yearned to make the leap to America, home of such Jones favorites as Stephen Colbert (“The funniest man on American TV”) and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (“It’s so deliciously inappropriate”).
Cowell courted him but Jones then had to endure “jumping through hoops,” passing muster with Fox and the show’s other producers. He let other offers slide while he waited for “X Factor, the one he wanted.
“I really rolled the dice,” says Jones.
He won. Will “The Factor” and Fox?
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