‘X Factor’ expands digital domain

Cowell, sponsors drive cross-platform drift

The production truck parked just outside where “The X Factor” shoots on Stage 36 in the CBS Television City complex is filled with 20 people hunkered over monitors. But they’ve got nothing to do with the live telecast.

That’s because the unscripted Fox series has a huge separate staff that works alongside the broadcast crew on TV’s biggest digital extension to a primetime series since NBC set the new standard with “The Voice” earlier this year.

X Factor” has successfully cultivated a fervent following on Twitter and Facebook since its September launch, and the show has since added a Verizon-sponsored Xtra Factor app that synchronizes an elaborate content companion to both Wednesday and Thursday telecasts. While the app’s available on iOs-powered devices like the iPad, the Android version is particularly robust, giving viewers the ability to vote five different ways and to access backstage cameras.

Viewers can also watch behind-the-scenes footage via a live one-hour Pepsi-sponsored pre-show that precedes every Wednesday broadcast; it’s available at TheXFactorUSA.com. In addition to talking heads gabbing about the upcoming episode and interaction with fans via Skype, the pre-show takes advantage of cameras close to the action. One utilized by the Xtra Factor app is even planted behind a mirror in case you want to see your favorite contestants fixing their lipstick or adjusting their collars.

This three-ring circus of social media, second-screen app and online pre-show is made possible for several reasons. For one, blue-chip brands like Pepsi and Verizon are footing the bill for the “X Factor” bells and whistles.

“Sponsorship dollars enable this grand experiment,” said Don Wilcox, VP and g.m. of branded entertainment at Fox.com. “This show in particular was an inflection point for digital coming to the forefront for a lot of clients.”

Sponsored spark

There are even more sponsored digital elements surrounding “X Factor,” from a standalone social network at PepsiSoundOff.com currently devoted to discussing the series to Pepsi Choice Performance, which will let viewers design an upcoming on-air performance by polling their preferences for dance style, special effects, wardrobe and props. Sony Electronics is behind a “Factor” online-video series, “All Access Pass.”

The “X Factor” digital extravaganza is an outgrowth of the super-sized vibe that Fox, FremantleMedia and Syco wanted to bring to every element of the show. Star and exec producer Simon Cowell made it known from the planning stages of “X Factor” that the series needed a robust online presence.

Cowell is said to be particularly avid tracker of “X Factor” Internet activity, so much so that there’s been plenty of speculation that his reconsideration of Melanie Amaro, a contestant who was voted out only to be reinstated by him, was prompted by the video streams she racked up on the series’ YouTube channel.

“Simon is attuned to real-time data,” said Owen Leimbach, an exec producer of “X Factor’s” digital efforts. “If he could have everyone in America walking around with those dials from focus groups, he would.”

Leimbach is with Sony Music Entertainment, which is partnered with Cowell in his Syco shingle. Cowell brought them in to handle digital operations in tandem with Fox.

Cowell’s embrace of the digital extensions has been instrumental in knocking down the traditional barriers that exist between a production’s TV and digital units. The integration between the digital and telecast production teams is evident both onscreen, where Cowell himself has made multiple plugs for the Xtra Factor app, and behind the scenes, where the TV crew give their digital counterparts the lyrics for each song performed to be uploaded in the app just hours before the show begins.

Most of the staff inside the truck are focused on the pre-show, but in an adjoining section sits a five-member team from TVplus, the third-party developer powering the app. They upload to the app over 100 factoids, videos, polls, photo galleries, tweet excerpts, fashion analysis per episode as it plays. As a song performs, the Xtra Factor app allows you to purchase it or rate the performance across various metrics from song choice to style.

“There’s something about live in terms of engagement with the app that you just don’t get with a website,” said Marc Scarpa, the producer-director overseeing the pre-show and the app for Sony Music.

But the website is lively in its own right, particularly before the latest “X Factor” episode begins. The pre-show crew has access backstage to the point where on this reporter’s visit, one pre-show correspondent stood waiting to ambush Antonio “L.A.” Reid with a vinyl copy of a forgotten album he produced as a member of forgotten ’80s R&B group the Deele, when the now-smooth-domed judge had a bouffant hairdo.

“The pre-show is hosted by Taryn Southern and Dan Levy, whose seat was filled that night by a guest host, Phillip Lomax, a former “X Factor” contestant eliminated from the series.”

Thirty minutes before their show last week, one of their guests that day is a friend of Southern’s, YouTube sensation Olga Kay. Kay happens to mention that she knows how to juggle, which prompts a producer to interject. “Can you do that on the show?” he asks.

About an hour later, she is expertly tossing several apples in the air for the online audience.

Fox pleased

Fox isn’t releasing traffic numbers for the pre-show but is pleased with the results, according to a spokeswoman.

Twitter is also deeply integrated into the telecast, with frequent teases to the accounts of the judges and contestants. But Facebook also plays a key role online; logging into the “X Factor” website is done via Facebook, which grants points for every interaction a user has with “X Factor” content. The site will soon introduce a rewards catalog where points can be traded in for “X Factor”-branded merchandise.

“X Factor” employs four staffers whose sole job is working social media, distributing dozens of content extras throughout the week and responding to every viewer inquiry regarding the series.

“X Factor” has been a power player in social media since its inception. In October, social-media tracker Trendrr found it was the most buzzed-about series in the broadcast category across a combination of Facebook, Twitter and check-in services like GetGlue. Another tracking service, Bluefin Labs, found that measured across all TV series airing firstrun episodes season to date, “X Factor” is second only to another Fox series, “Glee.”

For all the energy expended online, it’s questionable whether all those tweets have redounded to the telecast. While “X Factor’s” performance has been solid enough to have already earned the series a second season, it fell short of sky-high expectations. “The jury is out on the ratings piece of it” as far as whether the digital activity boosts overall viewership, Wilcox conceded.

Whether “Factor” will match the scale of its current digital efforts next season has yet to be determined. But taken together with what “The Voice” has done and the unprecedented digital depth Bravo is supplying to the current season of “Top Chef,” the DNA of reality-TV franchises is being altered more and more with digital part and parcel of the overall experience. Time will tell whether they remain a fixture for primetime skeins or fade as quickly as the latest Internet fad.