Simon Cowell at the "X Factor" premiere. (Chris Pizzello / Associated…)
The morning after "The X Factor's" American premiere last month, Simon Cowell got a call from his agent at Creative Artists Agency.
The ratings were nowhere near the monster hit Cowell himself had predicted, but the agent believed that if the 12 million or so people who turned up for the premiere kept tuning in, the show would be fine. "But if you go down by 30% tonight, you're dead," Cowell remembered his agent adding ominously.
Nearly a month later, "X Factor" still doesn't look ready to slay Cowell's old employer, "American Idol," in the TV-singing-competition grudge match. That's an important personal and professional point for Cowell, who has a famously bitter rivalry with "Idol" creator Simon Fuller. Cowell left his ultra-lucrative judging perch at that Fox hit to star in and produce the U.S. "Factor" on the same network.
But "Factor" is nevertheless off to a consistent if not spectacular start in a crowded fall marketplace, despite nettlesome interruptions from postseason baseball. A rain delay for a postseason game necessitated a last-minute scheduling switch that ended up bumping Thursday's show to Sunday. Tuesday's airing will be the last before the World Series further disrupts the schedule.
More important, the program has enabled Fox to control Thursdays in the fall for the first time ever, with ratings up 35% that night — the most lucrative of the week due to major advertisers seeking to sell movies and cars to weekend shoppers — compared with last year, according to Nielsen. That's made network executives forget that "Factor's" premiere ratings were treated as a disappointment in many quarters — including in rival networks' executive suites, where it was believed over the summer that "Factor" would do twice the ratings it has.
"If you look at this in the real world," said Fox's energetic reality guru, Mike Darnell, "a 4 demo rating for a brand-new television show in its third week … is called an out-of-the-box hit. Period."
The program may also be poised for the kind of growth seen in the British "Factor," where Cowell and his team have shrewdly manipulated an endless series of stage-managed controversies — including a deportation melodrama last year over teenage Zimbabwean contestant Gamu Nhengu that helped goose ratings.
"It does feel like where we were 10 years ago with 'Idol,'" Cowell said of the U.S. "Factor" in an interview last week. "It's like new territory again. I've had to shed everything we did with the U.K. [version] and get into my head that this is a brand-new audience who actually knew nothing about this show.… It was really hard, first of all, because I've been doing the show for seven years. You sort of assume that everybody knows what you're doing and then you quickly realize, 'God, no one's got a clue.' You've got to explain the whole process and you've gotta get people interested from scratch."
Still unknown is whether "Factor" can follow the path it took in Britain: a slow start followed by an inexorable rise to ratings glory. But Cowell is doing his part: Even though "Factor" is hardly yet a threat to "Idol," he's "a million percent" confident it will beat NBC's "The Voice," the singing show that returns to the schedule next year — and whose similarity to "Factor's" recipe, in which the judges mentor the contestants, greatly irked Cowell.
Bold predictions may grab headlines but also risk making "Factor" look weak if the numbers don't stack up. Darnell, however, sees it as a necessary part of Cowell's shtick: "He's a showman! That's part of what he does."
In fact, the plethora of singing shows on network schedules — NBC also has "The Sing-Off," which has produced low ratings this fall — has led some analysts to say there are simply too many of them, although not everyone agrees.
"The fact is, we like talent shows," said Scott Sternberg, a veteran reality producer not connected to "Factor." Viewers "want to hear stories about people who never had a chance, would never have gotten a chance — and this show gives them that."
On last week's shows, Cowell mentored the girl contestants; his main foil on the judging panel, music veteran L.A. Reid, has the boys (Paula Abdul is overseeing the groups, meanwhile, while Nicole Scherzinger has singers over 30). Cowell is already pointing to hopefuls he likes, including 14-year-old Drew Ryniewicz, who sang "It Must Have Been Love" for Cowell last week, and Chris Rene, a recovering addict who sang an original, hip-hop-inflected composition in his audition. Video of that audition on YouTube has already generated more than 6 million hits.
"That's where Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are invaluable, 'cause you get this instant feedback," Cowell said. Fan reactions online have prompted producers to keep making changes to taped programs until minutes before the episodes air, he added.
Of course, the real test for "Factor" will be whether it can excavate an American pop star comparable to the U.K. version's Leona Lewis, whom Cowell credits for helping make the show a fixture there.
Cowell believes the American version can ride a wave started by Lady Gaga, Adele, Katy Perry and other artists. "This last 12 months, 24 months, has seen one of the most radical changes in pop music I've ever seen in my life," he said. "It all started with Lady Gaga. It's created this new kind of power pop star."
Cowell believes it will happen — just as surely as he believes "Factor" will eventually be the ratings triumph everyone expected all along.
"This is gonna be a war," Cowell said, quickly adding: "A nice war. But we're all out to claim No. 1."