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'Idol': What 'X Factor' Can Learn From Its Success

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Feb 23, 2012 | 6:34am EST

American Idol Season 11 Judges and RyanWhile King Simon Cowell rode back to Fox on his White Steed, purporting to win the ratings battle for the network with a minimum of 20 million X Factor viewers, reality fell slightly short. Actually, it fell very short. The premiere opened to just 12.1 million viewers, yet Fox’s old dog, American Idol, averages about 18.8 million viewers per episode – and we haven’t even made it to the good part of the competition yet. Since its inaugural season, X has performed a purge eliminating host Steve Jones and judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger and most recently hinting that they'd add a second host to the mix in Season Two. But the series has some steep competition from the seasoned Idol. And the big question here is: what gives? What is it that keeps Idol flying high – even in a year when the series’ “declining” ratings is a constant news item – while the X Factor merely puttered along?

1. We want to meet the contestants, not the judges.

The X Factor has a unique approach in that it treats its judges as the real celebrities, instead giving that treatment to the stars it seeks to create. Idol certainly plays on the judges’ star power, but in a way that feels more like sage experience to help grow the contestants instead of feathers in their caps. When it comes time for judgment on Idol, it’s all about the singer onstage. What did they bring to the table? Did his or her talent really shine? On X, those criticisms are directed at the judges, because what really seems to be on trial are the judges’ managerial abilities instead of the individual singers’ talents. While it makes more sense from a music industry point of view, it’s not as fun for the viewer. Idol lets us all sit at the judges table because we’re just as separated from the contestants’ choices as they are. It’s an equal playing field that simply offers more entertainment than the inside baseball on The X Factor.

2. Steve Jones makes us long for Ryan Seacrest’s inane puns.

Seacrest may be the most inoffensive person ever. Even people who don’t like him can’t really pinpoint why. He’s just so delightfully vanilla with a drizzle of playful, yet safe sarcasm. And Steve Jones is…cute and British. And believe it or not, audiences want more than a pretty face. They want someone who truly connects with the contestants and the judges on a deeper, more personal level. That’s the host’s purpose: a bridge joining the dreamers and the wranglers, tying it all up in a nice bow for the viewers at home. More often than not, Jones was in a bit of contention with the judges on The X Factor – and that disconnect was awkward and completely palpable.

3. Genuine chemistry is always better than petty negativity.

The one thing Idol really got right in its second act, starting in Season 10, was the camaraderie among the judges. The series always had a bit of that, but rivalries were certainly encouraged. For the first seven years, we watched Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell fight, and when she left the show, they brought in Kara DioGuardi to take over the battle of snappy comments. But it was evident that the average reality show viewer was over it – the series needed to turn over a new leaf. In comes Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and the stalwart Randy Jackson, who disagree just as often as the old set of judges did, but without losing their esprit de corps. They’re like a loving triplet of parents, watching their contestant babies grow, while the X Factor judges not only lacked any real chemistry, but they really didn’t seem to like each other – a factor the producers tried to play up, to their detriment. In this new era of reality competitions, positivity is the way to go.

4. America wants to call the shots.

The X Factor seeks to remedy Idol’s mistakes by changing the formula so voters don’t really have the final say in who stays and who goes. Rather than votes determining the week’s castoff, they determine the bottom two and the judges then choose who stays. If the judges can’t decide, then America makes the decision – but that’s fairly rare. Once again, this plan makes sense from a music industry perspective – voters don’t always know who actually has what it takes to be a recording artist. But for the most part, viewers don’t tune in because their iTunes account is in need of a boost; they tune in because they want to watch entertaining television. Any series' real goal is first and foremost to be entertaining television - just ask the networks. And a large part of that entertainment is that sense of unpredictable mob rule. On Idol, singers we’d never expect to part with are sent packing in early weeks, while weaklings stay on – but that’s where are our stubborn opinions thrive. And it’s those stubborn, vehement opinions that make Idol so much fun. Idol does have one “Judges’ Save” per year, but it’s far from X’s weekly practice. By allowing music industry professionals to correct our mistakes, The X Factor robs us of a very significant fun factor.

Do you think Idol does it better than The X-Factor? What else does the original singing competition do better? Let us know in the comments or get us on Twitter @Hollywood_com and @KelseaStahler

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