Reporting from London — It's a ratings jackpot American networks can barely dream of. Nearly one in every three people in Britain is expected to tune in Sunday to discover which pop star wannabe will triumph on the TV reality show "The X-Factor."
Despite the feverish speculation in Britain's tabloids about the results and about the contestants' personal lives — from the guy who may be investigated for welfare fraud to the woman whose 81-year-old grandma is a prostitute and proud of it — there's never been any real doubt who the winner will be: Simon Cowell.
The omnipresent Englishman is the show's creator, one of its judges and, as the British like to say, "stonking rich" from the money generated by "X-Factor" commercials, product tie-ins, concert tours and the inevitable No. 1 single released in time for Christmas. Over the last seven seasons, Cowell has built the show into a cultural and financial phenomenon that has exceeded pretty much everyone's expectations but his own.
An American version of the program, spearheaded by Cowell , is scheduled to premiere next fall on Fox, the network that turned the snarky impresario into a household name in the U.S. after nine years as the de facto star of "American Idol." In May, the 51-year-old music executive abandoned his judge's chair on what is still America's most popular program, which has seen its ratings drop for the last several seasons and is likely to witness more without its acerbic headliner.
Cowell has kept many details of his new project under wraps, except for naming singer Cheryl Cole, a judge on the British series and herself a former reality-show winner, as a fellow judge on the American version. (Wags here snicker that Cole's thick northern English accent may require subtitles.) Cowell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has stated that he will unveil the rest of his American judges by the end of this month.
But Cowell no doubt will preserve some of the elements that contribute to the program's blockbuster success here in Britain, where its staggering audience figures would be the U.S. equivalent of 100 million people watching the season finale — a figure that comes close to the 106.5 million who tuned into this year's Super Bowl.
From the start, "The X-Factor" incorporated a twist that critics say has been key to making it stand out from other music reality shows. Instead of sitting in Olympian aloofness, the judges are part of the competition: Each mentors the acts in a particular category — boys, girls, groups or over-28s — and therefore feels personally invested in the outcome.
The setup has lured viewers by sharpening rivalries on the panel, providing more fodder for the gossip rags and triggering some notable on-air hissy fits, as when Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy, hurled water onto fellow judge Louis Walsh in the second season. (She's no longer on the show; he is.)
"That's the defining thing compared to 'Pop Idol' and 'American Idol.' The judges root for their own acts, and the ones they don't like, they'll be very quick to talk them down," said Stuart Heritage, who writes an "X-Factor" blog for the Guardian newspaper. "It becomes a bit of a soap opera."
Reports of a feud — of course denied — between Cole and fellow judge Dannii Minogue two years ago kept Britain's ravenous tabloids in clover for weeks. Cowell's cutting remarks about Walsh and his clownish antics are lapped up by a nation that loves nothing more than a nasty put-down.
Last month, Cole sparked outrage when she melodramatically refused to make the "X-Factor" version of Sophie's choice between two singers she had mentored, who ranked last in call-in votes and had to compete in a runoff decided by the judges. Angry viewers alleged that Cole's refusal to vote was part of a fix.
There've been other accusations that the show is engineered, in more ways than one. In August, producers admitted to using technology to refine the pitch of a contestant's rendition of "Walking on Sunshine" for the taped broadcast, though not during her actual performance for the judges. Fans took to Twitter and Facebook with cries of "cheat" and "shame," while one critic said the clumsy effort sounded like " Mariah Carey impersonating Robocop."
Yet such mini-scandals haven't dented "The X-Factor's" popularity. Nor has the steady diet of sensationalistic stories in down-market publications such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, which splash even the idlest pieces of tittle-tattle about "X-Factor" participants on their front pages on a near-daily basis.