Weeks before Fox officially lowered the curtain on The X Factor, sources say its creator and star Simon Cowell quietly reached out to NBC to find a new home for his TV baby. "Simon himself was involved in this process," says an executive familiar with the approach on behalf of Cowell's Syco production company and partner FremantleMedia. (A Cowell source vehemently denies a pitch was made, adding, "Fox and Syco/Fremantle looked at plausible other options in the U.S. without him but decided these weren't viable.") But NBC already has The Voice and the Cowell-produced America's Got Talent -- and, more importantly, X Factor was damaged goods.
In fact, now that the show was canceled Feb. 7, observers are divided on Cowell's future on U.S. television as well as the steps Fox will take to replace its failed franchise.
When the bombastic singing competition launched to much fanfare in 2011, Cowell -- whose pay was reported to be tens of millions of dollars because of his ownership stake -- boldly told THR he expected 20 million viewers a night for its twice-weekly broadcasts. But by its third season, after an overhaul that included slashing per-episode costs to what a source says was a still-pricey $2.5 million an hour, X Factor delivered only 6.7 million viewers a week in live-plus-7-day numbers (with younger viewers 18-to-34, it was down 45 percent). At the same time, ad revenue plummeted. X Factor raked in an estimated $500 million during its first season, according to Kantar Media, plus a lucrative two-year, $60 million sponsorship deal with Pepsi. But by season two, that ad money had declined more than 20 percent to $386 million. And during the first 11 months of 2013, X Factor generated slightly more than $139 million, compared with American Idol's $596 million and Voice's $565 million (the latter airs two cycles a year). Making matters worse, Pepsi declined to renew its sponsorship deal for X Factor's third season, as did Chevrolet, though Fox sales execs lured Honda and Procter & Gamble to replace them.'
The harsh reality was addressed head-on during 21st Century Fox's earnings call Feb. 6, with president and COO Chase Carey noting that the show's ratings were "disappointing" and "fell faster than we hoped." At the TV critics press tour in January, Fox Broadcasting Co. chief Kevin Reilly said that if X Factor returned for a fourth season, it "would not be in the current format we have." Reilly and his team are said to have discussed options for months, with Cowell noting in December that the show -- which critics have knocked as tacky and too over-the-top for mainstream U.S. audiences -- could shift to a one-night-only format. At the time, Cowell, who once ruled TV as the star judge on Idol, acknowledged that increased competition, including from Voice, was taking its toll: "It's getting to be probably too much."
The 54-year-old Cowell, who on Feb. 11 told a U.K. publication that it was always "[the] plan to do three years" of X Factor in the U.S., isn't out of the TV business, of course. X Factor continues to air in 45 countries, and Cowell said that he will return to the judges panel on the U.K. version. "The plan is for [Cowell] to have homes in London and New York and to say goodbye to L.A. for now," another source tells THR. Such a move would also bring him closer to girlfriend Lauren Silverman, who lives on the East Coast, with whom he's expecting a child in February.
Simon's backtracking is glorious to see