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The Show That Will Replace 'American Idol'

LONDON, ENGLAND—I have seen the future of American Idol, and it is called X Factor. This is not a commentary on Idol, nor on the new judging panel, but if Fox’s version of X Factor next fall turns out to be anything like the one currently airing on ITV in England, then stick a fork in Idol, because it’s done.

It’s hard to describe X Factor without seeing it, so you may want to check out the numerous clips on YouTube. Basically, it is a bigger and campier version of Idol. Seven seasons in, it is still taking England by storm. And it is absolutely fantastic.

The show looks like a mix of Idol and America’s Got Talent, with performers taking the stage directly in front of a four-judge panel (one of whom is Simon Cowell, who will also helm the Yankee version next fall). The performers can be groups, not just soloists, and each gets a judge as a “mentor.”

But the biggest difference for me is that X treats the contestants like they are already stars. The pre-taped pieces that introduce the performances are magnificent, and feel much bigger than Idol. The stage is massive and often filled with backup dancers while the singers do their thing, and the show is set in front of a seemingly huge, screaming studio audience. That difference is why I think Idol should do its final 12 episodes in a different city every week: a hot crowd adds so much to the TV product, and you just don’t get that on a soundstage in Los Angeles every week.

Also, X Factor has no age limit. That’s fortunate; without that rule, the show this season in England would not have a creepy old dude named Wagner who can’t sing a lick, but is a cult (and tabloid) hero thanks to getting into trouble for things like groping dancers and threatening to head-butt one of his competitors from a boy band. Let’s see Lee DeWyze do that.

England often tends to collectively fall under the spell of TV shows, but X Factor has unrivaled buzz. The show is still all over the British press, even though it has been on the air since 2004. And it is treated in the media like a major-market sports team, with tireless coverage before and after the show airs, and the rest of the week devoted to unearthing stuff about the judges and competitors, or the latest voting scandal.

You hear people talking about it in the pubs (which I entered during my recent trip to England for research purposes only; yet another sacrifice I endure for this job). And a lady in front of me at a newsstand was choosing a paper and actually said out loud (to no one in particular), “I’ll get this one, it looks like it has the most X Factor.”

Even the legal betting parlors are on board big time, as huge banners with X Factor odds adorn storefronts where you’d expect to see signs for the line on Manchester United’s next soccer game.

In England, X basically replaced Pop Idol. And a highly placed exec at one of England’s biggest media companies told me he expects the same result over here.

American Idol is done not long after X Factor starts over there,” he said. “Maybe Idol remains on for a bit because Fox has both of them, but X Factor will make American Idol irrelevant very quickly, just like it did here. It is bigger, broader, campier and just better.”

None of this will come as any surprise for Fox, of course. Their take is that they will have a massive event show on both in the fall and at midseason, and can balance them both. And they may be right. But the challenge will be if XFactor comes along and simply renders Idol miniscule by comparison.

Either way, Fox has purchased one of the best insurance policies in television history. X Factor really does have the “It Factor,” so American Idol better up its game before it gets left behind.

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