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X-citing debut for 'X Factor'

Simon Cowell's new singing competition show lifts curtain Wednesday night


From left, "The X Factor" judges Nicole Scherzinger, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and L.A. Reid pose with the show's host Steve Jones at a world premiere screening event for the new television series, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011, in Los Angeles.


LOS ANGELES -- I didn't want to like Fox's new singing competition show, The X Factor.

Overwhelmed and bored with the inundation of talent search shows where vocalists belt out tunes karaoke-style, I had written off the new Simon Cowell show as another American Idol.

So imagine my surprise when I, along with about 800 other media types and fans, got a sneak preview of The X Factor last week in Hollywood and actually started liking the show, rooting for contestants and tearing up for those who had been dreaming big but falling short for far too long.

Like it or not, reality television is here to stay, and programs such as The X Factor, which capitalize on the compelling back stories of real people, are as much a part of the medium as the best scripted dramas and comedies. Clearly, Cowell knows the former and as one of TV's most popular and prolific figures, brilliantly cashes in on American viewers' thirst for underdogs with raw talent.

The premise

It's all too easy to confuse The X Factor and American Idol.

The biggest differences are that The X Factor has a more generic name -- is this an X-Files remake? -- and is more inclusive, accepting talented contestants as young as 12 and as old as 90. The show also incorporates singing groups. Hopefuls perform to music, and unlike the one-on-ones between the wannabe contestants and the judges on American Idol, this show has wannabes trying out in front of thousands of people in arenas in cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and Seattle.

The prize is bigger too, and more impressive. The winner on The X Factor will walk away with a $5 million recording contract from Syco/Sony Music and a Pepsi commercial that will air during next year's Super Bowl. See, Coke sponsors American Idol, but Pepsi sponsors The X Factor.

There are four judges, including Cowell. He will be joined by his former Idol cohort Paula Abdul, record executive and producer L.A. Reid ,and pop star and former member of the Pussycat Dolls Nicole Scherzinger .

British pop star Cheryl Cole originally had been chosen to be a judge and is shown doing the job in the first installment, which debuts tonight. But somewhere along the way, Cowell and his fellow producers chose to go in a different direction with Scherzinger, who originally was slated as a co-host. Now, host Steve Jones, former model and British TV personality, will do the job alone, and the switch between Scherzinger and Cole is jarring.

With such a lineup, viewers can expect old-married-couple-style bickering between Cowell and Abdul aka Saula (where do the tabloids and fans get these nicknames?) and a lot of tears from Abdul, who is as emotional as ever. Scherzinger also is a crier, and in the sneak preview, the two women are shown holding hands and weeping together.

Which leaves Reid, the most pleasant and unexpected judge of them all. For any fool who confuses Reid with American Idol judge Randy Jackson simply because the two are both African-American, Reid quickly squashes that. He doesn't say, "dawg," and unlike Jackson, Reid is all too happy to give Cowell the blues regarding various contestants.

In one of the show's best moments, Reid and Cowell lock horns over a hotel performer who does a lot of splits a la Prince. Reid thinks he's a copy cat, but Cowell sees more. From there, a montage is shown of the two men bickering a lot in a fascinating, alpha-male-driven power struggle between two music industry big wigs. Cowell has met his match, and it's fun to watch.

Take that, American Idol.

Talented and tacky

If there is one criticism of The X Factor, which undoubtedly will be the No. 1 show this fall, it's that it relies too heavily on fake contestants to make viewers laugh and cringe. Because of this, there is no shortage of bad singers or decent singers with bad attitudes. But as NBC's hit summer series The Voice showed us, finding America's next big singing star can be done prankster free.

There's a Dallas contestant named Xander Alexander who has a respectable voice but can't center himself long enough to sing. Instead, he channels most of his energy into insulting Cowell, the audience and established pop stars. In Seattle, a man named Geo flashes his genitalia and makes Abdul flee in disgust. A mother and daughter duo fall flat with flat voices while another woman wittingly sings off key and then refuses (or at least pretends to refuse) to believe she's not a good singer.

Last but not least, there's the husband and wife team, Dan and Venita. He's 70 and she's 83, and neither can carry a tune.

Thankfully, the talented singers outweigh the bad and the brash, and in no time, you will be cheering for 13-year-old Rachel Crowe out of Los Angeles, Brooklyn native and single mother Stacy Francis, 42, and a fresh-out-of-rehab guy named Chris, who is hoping a shot on The X Factor will keep him clean and sober and make his young son proud.

Now that's compelling TV.

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