‘X Factor’ Is a Hit Overseas — Why Not in the U.S.?

Fox singing competition continues to slide in ratings as the net gears up for a critical launch of aging 'American Idol'

X Factor

This morning, a press release sailed into journos’ mailboxes with a subject line that read in all caps: “The X Factor Continues to Thrive Across the World” (caps left out of this article’s text for purely aesthetic purposes).

What the email should have had, in addition to this enthusiastic proclamation, was an asterisk along with the following footnote at the bottom of the message:

*Well, except for in the U.S.

First, the good news for the format, which hails from Simon Cowell and FremantleMedia: The 9-year-old franchise is now produced in 45 countries, including recent launches in Israel, Indonesia and Portugal. In Israel, “The X Factor” can log as high as a 45% audience share, beating out fellow singing competition show “Rising Star” (which was recently greenlit in the States by ABC).

“The X Factor” continues to rank as one of the top shows in Denmark, Hungary and Ukraine, and new commissions have been ordered by channels in Vietnam; Okinawa, Japan; Serbia; and Azerbaijan.

Where does Fox’s Stateside version of “X Factor” fit into the mix? As far as this Fremantle press release goes, it fits into the last paragraph, in the third to last sentence.

“In the U.S., the show is consistently the most digitally engaged show in broadcast TV after sport, and ‘The X Factor USA’s’ YouTube channel is one of the largest in the world with over 1 billion viewers,” the release read.

And that, my friends, is that, when it comes to “The X Factor USA’s” presence in a press release citing its global popularity.

That figure regarding “The X Factor USA’s” YouTube presence appears to be a bit of overstatement, as the channel ranks well behind Machinima, RihannaVEVO, JustinBieberVEVO, Smosh, IGNentertainment and dozens of other YouTube channels when it comes to views. What’s more, in terms of “digital engagement” — a phrase that seems to have some semantic issues in the press release — “The X Factor USA” was beat out last week on Twitter by shows including “The Walking Dead,” “The Voice,” “American Horror Story” and “Scandal.”

On a recent conference call with biz analysts, Chase Carey, COO of 21st Century Fox, called the Stateside version of “X Factor” “disappointing to date.” When Cowell ankled Fox’s “American Idol” and rolled out “The X Factor USA” in 2011, the program — with serious overseas success, something every network loves to have for peace of mind before a launch — was expected to be the energetic new kid on the block, a format to help drive viewers (and advertisers) to Fox in the fall, when “Idol” was in between seasons.

The understanding also seemed to be that Fox would be growing a new glossy singing competition to replace “Idol” when the aging program eventually petered out.

“X Factor,” however, failed to established itself as the new tentpole reality show on the Big Four. Its format (and judges’ faces) practically mirrored those of “Idol,” and it launched on Fox the same year that “The Voice” — with its unique spinning-chair element — bowed on NBC, which brought a fresh and competitive take on the singing competition genre.

Now in its third run on Fox, “The X Factor” continues to slide in ratings: Airing on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the program is averaging around 6 million viewers, a significant dropoff from season one’s average of about 12 million viewers. Pepsi and General Motors’ Chevrolet ditched the show this fall as advertisers (with Honda and Procter & Gamble subbing in).

As for “X Factor’s” digital accolades, an on-screen gaffe earlier this month led to contestants having to perform their songs again during the following broadcast, and American viewers to recast their live votes online, an awkward fumble by the program.

It’s been a rough run for “X Factor” on Fox, as Cowell and network brass have readily admitted. The most significant issue with the show? It struggles to stand out among the rest of the singing competitions on television — “Idol,” “The Voice,” a bevy of cable programs and, soon, ABC’s “Rising Star.”

Fox and “Idol” producers say the focus of “Idol” in its upcoming 13th season needs to be on the aspiring singers, not the judges, after a tumultuous season 12 with Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey led to more tabloid headlines than upticks in ratings. “X Factor,” unfortunately, does not have that kind of luxury. Its format, so similar to “Idol’s,” must be buoyed by big names at the judging table in order for it to stand out in the pack. Demi Lovato and Britney Spears helped add a little pizazz, but the buzz was short-lived and did not translate to a significant bump in viewership — in fact, numbers continued to dip.

When news broke in May that Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio would be the latest musical artists to grace the “X Factor” lineup, another nail seemed to be banged into the coffin: While both women are talented and have seen their share of showbiz success, they simply do not have the pop culture resonance and popularity needed to draw fresh viewers to “X Factor.” Mark Burnett, never shy to discuss “The Voice’s” success on NBC, does have a point regarding the relevance of “Voice” coaches Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and others: In America, they are all are still producing chart-topping hits, thereby elevating the notoriety of the show.

“X Factor’s” success in many other countries is due, at least in part, to the fact that there simply aren’t as many shows to watch on TV. The kind of audience share that “X Factor” is nabbing in a country like Israel is akin to what the Super Bowl is driving in the States. In the U.S., where the phrase “viewer fatigue” creates its own kind of meta-fatigue, choice is endless, leaving even successful international formats liable to fall through the lineup cracks and be forgotten by viewers.

What is Fox to do? There are rumblings in the unscripted biz that “X Factor” may not see a fourth season. It would be wise for Fox to cut its losses with the format and end it now; such a decisiion may fall into the hands of the net’s newly hired alternative chief, Simon Andreae. At this point, it would be smarter to funnel marketing and brainpower resources into keeping “Idol” afloat for as long as possible, instead of spreading them thin across two almost identical shows, one of which is showing no signs of making strides with American auds in the crowded marketplace.

One could argue that the show is now a utility player on Fox’s lineup, drawing decent eyes and ad dollars, but more niche shows like “MasterChef” are pulling similar viewership numbers at this point without watering down the marketing power of a bigger show like “Idol.”

The notion of a glossy competition program on the Big Four having such a short-lived run feels strange. We are used to shows like “Survivor,” “Idol,” “Big Brother,” “Dancing with the Stars” and others becoming mainstays on our lineups, and in truth, have yet to see a major reality show on the Big Four reach its closure.

When it comes to “X Factor,” though, it doesn’t matter how much a press release touts its international success — the format has been lost in translation when it comes to Stateside auds. While the language of the Cowell-created show may resound in foreign countries, it doesn’t speak to viewers on Fox, as more TV fans enjoy younger entries like “The Voice,” or head to cable for docu-comedies like “Duck Dynasty.” Thriving overseas but diving in the U.S., it may be time for Fox to silence “X Factor” for good.