Has Fox already forsaken American Idol?
Network executives spared no superlative in touting its shiny new program as The Biggest Show Ever, right before screening a mashup of the first two episodes a fashionable two hours late. Some actual quotes: "Welcome to the world premiere of the biggest show on television, the biggest show in the world ... Simon said this is gonna be epic, and boy, was he right ... I've never been a part of something this size ... What would have been four hours of television, we compressed into 90 minutes ... Simon is the most successful talent executive on the planet..."
And for Simon, too, size does matter. The X Factor boasts the heftiest prize in television ($5 million), a wider-than-Idol age range (contestants as young as 12 and as old as 88 auditioned) and both solo acts and groups were allowed to compete. Plus, hopefuls auditioned not just for the judges, but for arenas filled with thousands.
Still, will audiences be interested in the third major music show to arrive this year? Can Cowell steal back the thunder that greeted NBC's surprise hit, The Voice? After all that, is The X Factor really so different from Idol? Here's what else you can expect:
1. Simon's gone soft. At least, that's how he comes off in the mashup that was screened. His signature stabs — "You look like one of those creatures that live in a jungle" — are noticeably absent. The meanest he gets? "It was horrifying." (And even then, he said it to a sweet 83-year-old in a good-natured way and then wished her and her husband luck on their way out.)
2. That's because the auditions actually have way more in common with The Voice than they do with Idol. From the live audience, to the performers' anxious friends and families watching from backstage, structurally, the two shows are not so dissimilar. The most significant crib is that the majority of featured contestants are very talented — and an overwhelming number of them come with heart-warming, feel-good backstories. One woman even earns a standing ovation from the judges.
3. But a few crazies do make it on, and they're crazier crazies than you've ever seen. In keeping with the explicit "bigger is better" theme, one of them performs his original song "I'm a Stud" while flashing his man bits throughout. It's covered (just barely) by The X Factor logo, but it's also hanging out there for at least half of the song, which, of course, he's allowed to complete. Heaving, Paula Abdul leaves the panel before judgment is issued.
4. Ousted judge Cheryl Cole was perfectly understandable. Well-spoken and charming, too. But she was replaced after filming auditions in two cities, allegedly because her Geordie accent was thought to be too difficult to understand. She shows up in the first episode, which becomes a disservice to her replacement, Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger, whose breathy shtick and robotic comments are grating by comparison.
5. But Nicole will outshine Paula if it's the last thing she does! During a Q&A with the audience after the screening, the talkative Nicole refused to be silenced. Not after Simon tried several times to wrap her up, and not when LA tried. Paula may be kooky, but Nicole, as Randy would say, is in it to win it. Simon told reporters on Tuesday that Nicole's been known to change her accents spontaneously. She also told the crowd she was betting newcomer Steve Jones, who hosts the show, will "get some serious a—" once The X Factor blows up.
6. Producers are pushing a Simon vs. LA Reid rivalry. Is it forced? Sure. And it's set to "Eye of the Tiger." But is having two real music industry authorities on a panel a good thing? Yes. (Sorry, Randy.) And is this rivalry infinitely more bearable than the icky banter between Simon and Ryan Seacrest? Heck, yes.
7. Simon's shirts are cut lower than ever before. So watch for more chest hair than ever before, only partially covered by super-scooped scoop neck shirts.
8. There's a ban on audition songs that make your ears bleed. Or, we suspect there is. The one contestant who dared to sing Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" was cut off in 10 seconds. Also MIA: Michael Buble's "Feeling Good," Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours," anything by Celine Dion.
9. Oh, Steve isn't so bad either! A host that doesn't make it all about himself and has a winning accent? He's the anti-Seacrest.
The X Factor premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 8/7c on Fox.