Two weeks after Antonio "L.A." Reid confirmed that the second season of the U.S. version of "The X Factor" would be his last on the judges panel, rumors of Britney Spears' exit from the show spread like wildfire on Thursday, following a report from Us Weekly that painted the pop star's fate as all but sealed. Although Spears has indicated that she would like to return to the FOX reality competition in 2013 for a second season as a judge, a source tells the magazine that fellow judge and show mastermind Simon Cowell is actively trying to push the veteran singer out: "He wanted crazy Britney, but he got boring Britney."
A spokesperson for the show has told the Los Angeles Times that it's simply too early to answer questions regarding Spears' future with the show. "No one has discussed next year's judging panel," says the "X Factor" rep. "Any reports otherwise are complete speculation." Whether Spears returns for Season 3 or is "fired," as headlines have announced Thursday, the pop singer's potential departure from "The X Factor" comes after a mixed season that failed to live up to the hype that came with the addition of Spears and Demi Lovato as judges.
The May announcement that Spears and Lovato would be replacing Season 1 judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger breathed new life into a franchise that was modeled, with high expectations, after its incredibly successful U.K. counterpart. After the British "X Factor" generated hit-makers like One Direction, Leona Lewis and Olly Murs beginning in 2007, Cowell expressed the desire to see the Stateside "X Factor" surpass the ratings of his previous FOX smash, "American Idol," and rule the reality ratings roost upon Season 1's September 2011 debut. That didn't happen. 12 million viewers watched Season 1 each week, according to Nielsen, compared to 15.8 million weekly viewers for NBC's "The Voice." And Season 1 winner Melanie Amaro, whose debut album will not make its way onto shelves by the end of 2012 as initially expected, has thus far been unable to establish herself as an organic star like recent "Idol" champs Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips.
However, the addition of proven superstar Spears and former Disney star Lovato was supposed to help morph "The X Factor" into the star-making juggernaut that Cowell had intended upon its launch. "There would be no point in us doing the show if we genuinely didn't believe that, at the end, there would be some sort of legacy that makes the show worthwhile," Cowell told Billboard in our "X Factor" cover story this September.
Unfortunately, that legacy is still a bit unsatisfactory. The two-hour September premiere of Season 2 of "The X Factor" underwhelmed in ratings, averaging 8.5 million viewers and a 3.3 rating among adults 18-49 -- which was a 25 percent drop from the 2011 series premiere, according to affiliate ratings. The show's ratings grew as the vocal talent improved, and by the time that FOX announced in October that "The X Factor" had been renewed for a third season and had added Khloe Kardashian-Odom and Mario Lopez as live show co-hosts, the 18-49 demographic was up to a 3.9 rating and the total viewership averaged 10.6 million. But the Season 2 finale on Dec. 20, which garnered 9.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, was down 18 percent from the final episode of Season 1. Adding insult to injury, the Season 3 finale of "The Voice" easily trumped its FOX counterpart when it aired two nights earlier.
Why didn't the presence of Spears and Lovato (along with returning judges Cowell and Reid) move the dial more? Part of the lackluster ratings can be chalked up to the talent competing for the Season 2 crown: Tate Stevens, the country music vocalist who won the trophy and a $5 million recording contract, is a powerful singer who happens to be 37 years old. His victory over Carly Rose Sonenclar, 13, understandably drew less interest from the 18-34 demographic than the latest "Voice" victor, 23-year-old pop-punk singer Cassadee Pope, as well as 22-year-old "Idol" champ Phillips.
And while Stevens was crowned the "X Factor" winner with a stirring cover of Chris Young's song "Tomorrow," Phillips emerged with a fully formed original smash, as his single "Home" bowed at No. 2 on the Digital Songs chart last May and has since sold 3 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Endearing talent can mask the dysfunction from the judges table, as seen when McCreery's presence on Season 10 of "Idol" overcame the early shakiness of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Stevens has a real chance to be a star, but he did not command viewers' attention with the same charisma as his reality TV forefathers.
Of course, the Season 2 talent was coupled with a judges panel and a pair of hosts that produced neither scintillating entertainment nor keen vocal insight. "Crazy Britney" should not have been expected or desired upon Spears' entry into the "X Factor" world, but the pop superstar's presence on the show was admittedly less beguiling than originally anticipated. Too often was she stuck back-patting the competitors when she should have been mentoring them. As the source tells Us Weekly, Spears' job was not to be outrageous, but it was also not to "say 'amazing' and offer half-claps." Along with the unexceptional ratings and the $15 million price tag that accompanied Spears' involvement with the show, it's no wonder that her departure is at least under discussion.
Fortunately for Spears, the "X Factor" gig has helped her accrue another hit single, one year after her seventh studio set, "Femme Fatale," notched another No. 1 album debut and eventually moved 769,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Scream & Shout," her collaboration with will.i.am that was released last month, has so far peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100 and has sold 635,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, after topping the Digital Songs chart for one week.
Like Jennifer Lopez and "Voice" coach Christina Aguilera before her, Spears gave her new single a glossy platform when she and the Black Eyed Peas frontman premiered the track during the Nov. 28 live episode of "The X Factor." Even if Season 2 proves to be Spears' sole outing with the franchise, her recording career certainly looks no worse for wear.