Hit UK show launches U.S. edition this fall

Simon Cowell is admittedly nervous about the size of the $5 million record deal that “The X Factor” will be doling out to its big winner under a pact the show has inked with Syco, Cowell’s joint venture with Sony Music.

“I think it’s good to be nervous,” Cowell said Monday in a conference call with journos after unveiling details of the “X Factor’s” grand prize. “It puts everybody, rightly, under a certain amount of pressure.”

Cowell added that he hoped the award would be “life-changing” for the winner.

“Just to be clear, this isn’t a dressed-up $5 million; this is a straight $5 million,” he said. “The recording and marketing costs are totally separate; it’s $1 million a year for five years.”

“Factor,” set to bow on Fox in the fall, will hold auditions in L.A. starting March 27, followed by stops in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, New York and Seattle.

“Factor” is produced by Syco TV and FremantleMedia. The U.K. edition of the show has aired on Britain’s ITV since 2004.

The format of the new show distinguishes it from other talent competish programs — including those, like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” — that Cowell has helped to create. Contestants will perform in front of a live audience of thousands from the audition level onward.

“It really helped me to judge them as a performer and to get a reaction from the audience,” Cowell said of the original version of the show. “There have been times when I’ve hated a performer and then I’ve had a mutiny going on behind me. I don’t believe Susan Boyle would have gotten through in the old-fashioned audition method.”

In a bid to spice things up, each of the show’s panel of judges will adopt up to five contestants, training them and helping them to choose material even as they judge their work in front of the audience. Asked whether the move created any unfair advantages, Cowell told journos that he was looking for people with the capacity to be honest and impartial, but also added, “I think it makes it amusing, to be honest with you.”

For his part, Cowell — who name-checked the cast of Fox’s “Glee” when asked who possessed the titular factor — said he hopes he’ll find a new group, rather than a solo artist.

“I would even say to schools across the country — there’s a lot on YouTube now about how great choirs have gotten — and I’d love for them to come on the show. I’d love to find something different.”

The record deal will not tie the winner to a single Sony Music label. Instead, the show will try to place the winning performer with a stable of similar artists.

“I remember (current Sony Music topper) Clive Davis calling me about Leona Lewis when she was in the U.K. competition, saying, ‘I want to get behind this girl, she’s a star,’ ” recalled Cowell. Lewis signed with Davis’ J Records.

“I think we need to handle it the same way, putting the artist with the person who is able to offer the most,” he said.

Cowell would clearly like to see some ancillary “X”-driven record sales, but the “Idol” audience’s interest in buying music by the series’ stars has waned over the years. While long-ago champs like Kelly Clarkson (season one) and Carrie Underwood (season four) have garnered hit albums, and Fantasia (season three’s winner) and runners-up Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert have rung up some sales, recent “Idol” grads have flopped on the charts.

As of last week, season nine runner-up Crystal Bowersox’s “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which came out in December, stood at No. 59 on the U.S. album chart and had sold 137,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while season nine winner Lee DeWyze’s November release “Live It Up” fell off the chart completely; the previous week, the latter album stood at No. 183, with 112,000 sold. Other latter-day “Idol” champs — Taylor Hicks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Jordin Sparks — have similarly failed to register big hits.

“The X Factor” is also notable for its open-door contestant guidelines. Groups and soloists ages 12 and up are invited to perform, and execs are hoping that the show’s open policy will attract contestants who are trying for fame and fortune in their later years, as many similar shows have an upper age limit. Cowell told journos that “times have changed” since he told the press he thought it would be unsuitable for a 12-year-old to perform in a competition show.

That X factor, he said, often shows up where you least expect to find it.

“You get a different kind of artist now. Take Lady Gaga,” Cowell offered. “God only knows what we would have said to her if she’d walked into ‘Idol’ three years ago with a lobster on her head. But she’s got it.”

(Christopher Morris contributed to this report.)

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