If you look back at the history of the singing-competition genre, there is one person that you have to thank for its success almost straight out of the gate … and it’s not Ryan Seacrest. Simon Cowell was the angry British judge that you watched to see, and you talked about with your friends in school or at the workplace. You had no idea who he was going to trash next, and when he praised you, it really felt like it meant something in the early days of “American Idol.”
So is it possible that the man most responsible for the genre’s success at this point could also be the biggest reason for its demise? Somewhere in between being a pioneer and the sad Simon Cowell of today, the mogul lost sight of what making good television meant. Maybe it happened when he left Fox’s long-running show to create “The X Factor,” but we actually feel like the turning point started to come after he told Carrie Underwood that she would sell more albums than anyone ever on “American Idol” season 4, and she ended up winning that season. It was just that tiny sea change that made him and the public think that having a star down the line was just as important as being entertained in the present.
From that point on, Simon’s focus started to slowly shift away from the medium of television to the music industry itself. While he continued to judge on “American Idol,” you still had the feeling the past few years that he was distracted. That was because he was busy farming talent in the UK. Now he is trying to do the same thing here, but it’s not working. Why? It’s because he still has not figured out the reason why he no longer is an institution.
Given that Simon’s talent first and foremost comes in the recording industry, it’s understandable that he wants to look for stars that can sell records. But he has become so increasingly obsessed with life after the show for his contestants, he has started to become stunted and oblivious to their lives during the show. You have numerous instances on “The X Factor” USA this year that Simon is distant to the contestants in his groups category. He has country group Restless Road covering cheesy songs like “Footloose,” and during the first live show he referred to one of the singers in RoXxy Montana as “the one in the middle.” Seriously. You have your head so far down the road that you are not thinking about memorizing names, let alone delivering an entertaining product.
In order for people to care enough to buy records, they have to care about their time on the show. While you can criticize “The Voice” for not doing enough with their artists after the fact, they make sure that this is something that you want to watch. You get the impression that the songbook is richer, and coaches care more about the contestants, who seem to be having much more fun since there is not some sort of expectation thrown at them to be the next big thing manipulated by a label. Viewers respond to that positive vibe, and become attached to artists on some level.
While “The Voice” is fun, lighthearted, and breezy, “The X Factor” feels sometimes as a viewer like you are walking in on a game-show version of “The Hunger Games.” It’s loud, intimidating, and obsessed with ceremony that it never had in the first place. There’s no real opportunity for fun, and everything feels calculated from the songs to the backup dancers to Mario Lopez powering up at the start of each show. Simon’s quips are no longer original, and while Kelly Rowland and Demi Lovaot occasionally try to show personality, they are swallowed up by the machine surrounding them.
There is also another problem to go along with the pressure “X Factor” contestants feel to succeed: It almost makes some of them not even want to win the show. Back during the early days of singing shows, it became less of a bad thing to be declared the winner; Mario Vasquez of “American Idol” is one of the few people we can think of in the early days that really adopted an alternative ideology. But now? If you’re an indie artist, you don’t want to deal with the million-dollar contract, getting rushed into the studio, and having to make sure you do everything right. Just look at what happened to Melanie Amaro, and the sort of freedom that she would been given had she not won her season of “The X Factor.” Or, you can imagine that Candice Glover on “American Idol” this past season would feel the same sort of pain now if she was in second place. Winning has almost become stigmatic, and the journey to winning is therefore stressful.
Simon’s not the only person to blame for enforcing that good television and record sales should go hand in hand, but his repeated insistence of this is one of the many reasons why he’s now tanking in America. “The Voice” promises nothing, and you can focus on the entertainment. But when you market your show so much around finding a star and you don’t find one, it’s like tripping while going on the stage. You may act like nothing happened, but everyone knows. And sadly, “X Factor” has fallen on his face too many times to whistle to itself and be cool.
At this point, the damage has probably been done. Maybe with the end of “The X Factor” Simon can learn something, and then bring it over to the British series so that it finds a way to stop viewers from tuning out the show. Maybe its end will also mean better things for “American Idol,” which will have one less competitor on the air. “The Voice” may be the little brother on the block right now, but the more that we think about it, the more it’s clear that it is the show with the most to teach.
But sadly, the singing-competition genre of television is dying, and it’s because those in power have forgotten that it is television first.