Unfortunately for Simon Cowell, it turns out you can’t control the outcome of the show you created. Both of the the V-neck lover’s most promising acts were shut out from glory on The X Factor, including last-minute front-runner Fifth Harmony. But, if we’ve learned anything from One Direction (who are huge despite not winning the U.K. X Factor), it ain’t over ‘till it’s over. And if the series hopes to up its own X factor, it’s going to need another 1D style miracle.
Yes, the season finale delivered a winner — and one who’s a safe financial bet. But that doesn’t necessarily cut it. Country crooner Tate Stevens rose to the top of the heap, winning the singing competition Dec. 20 and eying what’s likely a pretty smooth road to solid record sales. After all, Country Music is the only genre that continues to post significant growth in sales while the rest of the music industry is putting up little or even negative changes, upping its overall album sales by one million units in 2012, according to Nielsen numbers. Stevens will be just fine. But it’s the buzz factor that’s missing. Even American Idol’s Scotty McCreery, whose debut album Clear as Day went platinum, sailed into his moderate success fairly unceremoniously. He’s not on the cover of every teen magazine, the paparazzi don’t follow his every move, and last time I checked, no one was trying to put his face on any X-rated products. He’s doing fine. But “fine” doesn’t help build a flailing fan base. You need a musical force to be reckoned with to bring the masses to your door.
And The X Factor could certainly use a few more folks tuning in. The season ender’s ratings are down immensely from last year: 9.6 million viewers in 2012 compared to 12.6 million in 2011. To put these numbers into some form of context, last season of American Idol crowned Phillip Phillips the winner while 21.49 million people watched and The Voice ended its third season with 14.13 million folks tuned in for the results. The X Factor is lagging, and a success on the level, or anywhere close to the level, of One Direction could turn that around.
Part of the promise of the X Factor is obviously the antics at the judges’ table, but the show sold itself on the promise of finding stars. While Idol puts its focus on finding raw, a capella talent and The Voice focuses on its colorful set of judges, The X Factor purports to fill in the gap by seeking out people who’ve got the indescribable glittery insides that comprise one’s “x factor.” Idol periodically proves itself, churning out enough successes like Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, McCreery, and, more recently, Phillip Phillips, whose single “Home” has blown up this year. A success story here and there keeps the hope alive — it keeps the series relevant. And in the case of The Voice, the concern seems to be less on finding talent and more about the fireworks among the spinning chair judging court. It’s relevancy is in its nonsense and where The X Factor judges are comprised of (at least partially) industry experts, The Voice panel is made up only of outspoken artists whose antics often overtake the performers themselves. For the X Factor, the true niche has yet to be carved. The series has been riding all season on the bragging rights that come with a multi-national success like One Direction, but unfortunately for Fox’s second singing show, that success started on the U.K. version of the show. The U.S. one needs it own, and if Cowell plays his cards right, one of his groups could fill that gap.
Now, Emblem 3, who occupied the anti-boy band boy band space we didn’t know existed in their time on X Factor, got a major vote of confidence from Cowell, who eluded to signing them when all was said and done, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m not going to let anyone else get to them.” But since their elimination, talk of the trio has cooled, and in its place is chatter about Cowell’s girl group, Fifth Harmony. The fivesome shot to the top of the leaderboard when they turned their blasé schtick around with a luminescent, bubbly performance of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.” While the song wasn’t their own, the girls proved that given the right material, they could easily slide into the gap in the industry and become the girl group in pop music.
Looking back at One Direction, whose five members were pieced together on the show just like the girls of Fifth Harmony, they’re not particularly remarkable all on their own. (Cue hate tweets flooding my way for the next week and a half.) They are lovable guys who burst onto the market with an unbelievably catchy, absolutely inescapable pop song. They had the raw goods, but they became superstars thanks to pitch-perfect songwriting and great marketing. With no other competition in the market, Fifth Harmony has an opportunity to do the same - if they can get themselves the right song.
Of course, while finding a way to turn one of the X Factor’s discoveries into a cash cow is great for the show itself, it’s also great for Cowell, who’s tied his ship (Syco Music) to the singing competition. He’s got major bragging rights with One Direction, but other than perhaps Leona Lewis of a few years ago, Syco isn’t exactly bringing the heat. What’s more is that most us haven’t forgotten his over-inflated ratings estimate when the X Factor first crossed the pond to the U.S., and it’s looking less and less likely that Cowell will ever reach his original 20 million viewer mark. Cowell has talked the talk (again and again and as loud as ever), but he needs to continue to walk the walk. Perhaps that’s why his comments comparing Fifth Harmony to One Direction circulated the day before the Season 2 finale: He needs the buzz and the merit that could come from another huge success.
Of course, there’s also the glaring geography problem staring us in the face. While One Direction has given Cowell credit for his managerial skills, it doesn’t necessarily give the U.S. X Factor credit. U.S. viewers never saw Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson take their journey through boot camp and performance challenges, yet none of us can stop singing “One Thing” every time it sneaks into a playlist. We became attached once they were already a full-formed sensation. Fifth Harmony, if they can get the song and branding efforts just right, could be the U.S.’s answer to the pop sensation and the gaping lack of lady-led pop star groups. It’s no guarantee and it’s an understatement to call their chances a crap shoot, but as X Factor’s ratings decline, the show needs nothing short of a music industry miracle.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Frank Micelota/Fox (2)]
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