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'The Voice' vs. 'The X Factor'
How the two big music competition series of the fall
stack up against each other
By Ken Barnes Special to MSN TV
After nearly toppling "American Idol" in the
early stages of the ratings battle earlier this year, before fading, "The Voice" has made a
speedy turnaround to battle FOX's other music competition, "The X Factor," this
fall. (Although it may turn out to be a cannibalistic disaster, "The Voice" is
going head-to-head against "X Factor" at least once, during the shows' premiere
week. "Voice" episodes start Monday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. ET/PT and also go on to
Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT. "X Factor" bows that very same hour
Wednesday on FOX, and continues Thursday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)
On paper, "The Voice" has a sizable advantage, having averaged greater
than 3 million viewers more than "X Factor" last season -- about the same margin
by which "Idol" beat "The Voice."
Are you a fan of "The Voice" or "The X Factor"? Tell us at MSN TV on
But "X Factor" seized hold of the buzz factor early in 2012 by firing its two
female judges, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger (the
latter has salvaged a judging gig on the show's U.K. version), and
hapless host Steve Jones. A public courtship of Britney Spears (eventually hired along
with ex-Disney star Demi Lovato to replace Abdul and
Scherzinger), followed by breathless reports on how the volatile paparazzi
magnet was faring during auditions, kept "X Factor" atop the gossip cycle -- at
least until "Idol" upped the ante by (presumably) parting ways with all three of
its judges, hiring ultimate diva Mariah Carey and stirring the pot
with endless speculation over the other, still unnamed, replacements.
After the blind auditions -- TV's most exciting, thanks to the inspired
"spinning chairs" gimmick -- each coach will begin with 16 singers. Battle-round
duets will reduce the rosters to eight apiece ... but there's a twist. Each
coach can "steal" two battle-round losers, adding them to his or her own team.
(The spinning chairs will be involved in this process. There's no gimmick too
inspired to run into the ground.) Each team of 10 will then be cut down to five
via a new "knockout round," which is a head-to-head competition between two
teammates, not (thankfully) a forced duet, which has turned out to be a poor way
to assess talent. (The steal idea, which acknowledges that strong singers are
unfairly eliminated in the forced-duet context of the battle rounds, tries to
put a bandage on this problem.) The final five weeks should chop the teams down
as before until one singer from each team remains.
"X Factor" has announced a few non-personnel changes of its own, involving
the four categories into which it assigns its teams. This season, singers will
compete as individuals 12-16 (aka the kiddies), individuals 17-24 (the core
group), individuals 25-plus (the oldsters, starting five years younger than last
year's "over-30s"), and groups (or losers, judging from last season's dismal
results). Otherwise, you'll still see the auditions, directly modeled on
"Idol"'s good-or-excruciatingly-bad format, though possibly qualitatively better
this year thanks to new rules permitting singers already signed to management
and agency contracts. One other wrinkle: The auditions will be host-less, since
(despite endless bandyings of actors and reality-show types) that position has
not yet been filled.
Then, after audition winners are chosen and assigned to categories (some
groups will likely be assembled from close-call individual auditioners), we'll
endure the boot camps of the rich-and-famous phase, in which the judges train
and choose their teams at their far-flung, opulent homes, followed by the final
week-by-week eliminations, also modeled on "Idol"'s.
But let's not kid ourselves: New viewers are not going to tune in because the
age limits have shifted. They'll be curious about Britney.
Of course, it was a ridiculous idea. Having Britney Spears -- a vocalist of
limited range, even more limited expressiveness and a widely reported penchant
for lip-syncing her way through live shows -- judging singing ability is as
absurd as ... um, having Paula Abdul do it. OK, so the precedent's been set and
nobody seems to care all that much. But in the case of Britney, who seems to
walk around in a daze much of the time and is barely intelligible in some of her
interviews, even having her talk on-air seems preposterous.
But as I said, people will be curious. And they love train wrecks. Not that
they'll see any for the first several weeks, because everything up to the actual
eliminations is taped. Which means the producers can control how Britney comes
There's good reason for watching just to see which approach they take,
however. Will they try to make her sound intelligent, cherry-picking carefully
staged instances of snappy exchanges with Simon and sympathetic-yet-perceptive
verdicts on auditioners? Or will they depict her on the brink of a flare-up,
hinting that the possibility of a future meltdown is there? Or just let her
natural vacuity hang out?
My bet's on a combo platter of all three, with an emphasis on No. 1 and No. 2
(No. 3 is bound to show up no matter how much video manipulation they do). That
means several weeks of extended tease -- which is, after all, the theme of
Britney's career -- before we get to the live shows, where anything actually
could happen (at least on the East Coast broadcast).
The big question for "X Factor" and FOX is whether enough of those new,
curiosity-driven viewers will stick around that long.