From cash cow to Axed Factor: Scandals, staged auditions, power wrangles – and a TikTok generation immune to Simon Cowell’s manipulative magic… ALISON BOSHOFF reveals why he’s put Britain’s favourite talent show out of its misery
It was the all-conquering juggernaut of popular entertainment, the most-watched TV show that produced the biggest singing stars and made Simon Cowell very, very rich indeed.
For 17 years, The X Factor was the golden goose that kept laying. At the last count, he was said to be getting £25 million per year by ITV to act as a judge and producer, making the £7 million he received at the start seem paltry by comparison.
He also benefited from revenues flowing from the pop stars which the show launched — including One Direction and Leona Lewis — and from money made by other X Factors across the globe.
At its peak, the show went out in 151 countries and was seen by half a billion people a year. Its best ever audience in the UK was in December 2009, when 19 million eagerly watched the final (won by the long-forgotten Joe McElderry).
For 17 years, The X Factor was the goose that kept laying. At the last count, Simon Cowell (pictured) was said to be getting £25 million per year by ITV to act as a judge and producer
The financial picture is complex, but The X Factor had been netting him up to £50 million a year. No wonder his curiously smooth brow was so furrowed when we last spoke about the show in 2018.
Back then, it was barely scraping six million viewers. Speaking privately backstage, he said he didn’t want to preside over the embarrassing decline of his ‘baby’ but seemed unable to halt the slide, no matter what he tried.
‘I won’t let it go out with a whimper or fade away,’ he said. ‘We have to protect it, to bring it back. I won’t let it be a laughing stock.’
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Despite his best efforts, The X Factor is no more. But why? The reasons are multiple.
TALENT SHOW FORMAT THAT GOT TIRED
Those close to the decision to axe X Factor say that the format had simply reached the end of the road.
Wisely intuiting that ITV’s new head of entertainment, Katie Rawcliffe, wanted new formats and new successes, Cowell pulled the plug himself.
There is a sense that the boom in TV talent shows is over. Rawcliffe is said to be turning to new family-friendly gameshow formats. Not that Simon is losing out.
Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne exchanged cross words across a sombre looking Dannii Minogue during the X Factor in 2007
One of the new quiz shows, Walk The Line, is by Cowell’s company, Syco Entertainment. He has also got a big deal to launch a search for a singing star in the U.S. — 50 States To Stardom.
It will be a bit like an American Eurovision Song Contest. As for The X Factor, it has now joined his pile of fondly remembered exes.
LAST-DITCH EFFORTS THAT FAILED
In 2018, Simon Cowell persuaded ITV to pay Robbie Williams — with his wife Ayda Field as sidekick — £10 million to join the judging panel.
He was sure that Robbie’s star power would save it but the ratings were still poor. The finale drew just 5.5 million viewers.
Then there were hopes that a celebrity version might refresh the whole brand in 2019. The ratings were woeful — 3.5 million. A ‘band’ iteration fared no better.
The show relies on huge open auditions, which meant that, unlike Britain’s Got Talent, they couldn’t even think about a Covid-safe version in 2020.
People started wondering if it might ever come back: ITV plc managing director Kevin Lygo told the virtual Edinburgh TV Festival: ‘It’s not definitely returning, it might return, and if it does the format will tweak. Simon controls it more than we do. When does he want it to come back, how does he want to come back? Hopefully we can be part of it.’
One old ITV associate told me: ‘I feel for Simon but X Factor has been over for years, and no matter what he did he couldn’t pull it back.
‘It has been killing him to lose in the ratings every week. He had to accept it.’
ALLEGATIONS OF SCANDALS/COMPLAINTS
The recent eruption of an alleged #MeToo scandal, with former contestants Katie Waissel and Rebecca Ferguson complaining of their treatment on the show, has surely helped the decision along.
Earlier this year Waissel said that she had been sexually assaulted by a former Sony and Syco employee at an LA hotel in 2015, five years after she appeared on the show.
Katie Waissel (pictured in 2010) said she had been sexually assaulted by a former Sony and Syco employee at an LA hotel in 2015, five years after she appeared on the show
Rebecca Ferguson (left) has complained about the way that she was managed after being a runner-up, while Irish duo Jedward (right) alleging every contestant ‘was a slave to the show’
A Syco spokesman said that they suspended the individual named by Waissel but she had refused to make a complaint so they had been ‘obliged’ to accept his denial.
Rebecca Ferguson, also a star of the 2010 series, has complained about the way that she was managed after being a runner-up. She has since reported claims of harassment and coercive control against an industry figure who is not a Sony or Syco employee.
Irish duo John and Edward Grimes — known as Jedward — had also spoken out against the show, alleging earlier this year that every contestant ‘was a slave to the show and got paid zero while they made millions’.
A spokesperson for The X Factor said: ‘We take welfare very seriously and have measures in place to ensure that contestants are supported.’
FIXES AND DIRTY DEEDS?
There was some negative press when it emerged that the winner of the ‘£1 million contract’ actually only got a £150,000 advance and was then promised a modest percentage of earnings from future record sales and tours.
It turned out that the £1 million figure referred to the amount Syco, Simon Cowell’s record company, and parent company Sony BMG will spend on the artist including writers and producers, marketing and advertising.
While the 2006 winner Leona Lewis made £6 million with Bleeding Love, other winners such as Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward and Leon Jackson only managed a hit single and album and then faded away, and can count themselves lucky to have come away with £250,000 in total.
Zoe Alexander auditioned for ITV’s X Factor in 2012, where she performed So What by Pink, but she later alleged that she had been ‘set up’ by the programme makers
An infamous moment from the X Factor auditions in 2010 saw Abbey Johnstone punch her friend Lisa Parker in the face
Jonathan Shalit, the impresario who launched Charlotte Church, said at the time that complaints over a lack of creative freedom were misplaced.
‘Look, this is a karaoke show. Everyone knows the rules by now.’
There were rumours about fixes: singer Louisa Johnson was apparently given more than one chance to nail her audition for Rita Ora at the crucial Judges’ Houses stage.
Also, by 2015 the show’s credibility was taking a serious pounding when it emerged that the vast majority of the acts — 22 out of the final 24 — weren’t hidden diamonds in the dust after all, but established performers recruited by talent scouts.
The show’s production crew were said to supply some of the homemade signs held by auditionees and crowd members.
SOB STORIES THAT BEGAN TO WEAR THIN
An important part of the success of the early years, the sob stories had started to become a bit tiresome.
As judge Louis Walsh said: ‘There are sob stories every day of the auditions. For some reason, the public seem to like them.
Judge Cheryl Cole got teary-eyed during Josh Daniel’s emotional performance of Jealous during the 2015 auditions
‘I don’t always buy into them — it’s a talent show. If they’re coming to sing for their dead nan, or they’ve only got one lung, that’s fine. But I’m judging them on their voice. I don’t want to see anybody crying. It doesn’t really work for me. No one’s going to buy your record for that reason.’
THE TUNES THAT HIT A BUM NOTE
The show’s fate was sealed in July last year when Cowell bought out Sony Music Entertainment’s stake in his company.
Sony had a 50 per cent stake in Syco Holdings limited and a 25 per cent stake in Syco Entertainment Limited, his TV firm.
They paid Cowell around £45 million for it in 2016. Under the buyback, Sony hung on to the lucrative back catalogue of Syco former artists.
The deal saw him regain full personal control of his TV company but let his music label go — a clear reflection of the fact that X Factor was no longer launching successful recording artists.
Their biggest act by far was One Direction who ‘went on hiatus’ (split up to you and me) in 2015.
What had started out as a goodnatured karaoke show had turned out embarrassing novelty acts like Chico, Jedward and Honey G.
The X Factor’s biggest act by far was One Direction (pictured with Ronnie Wood) who ‘went on hiatus’ (split up to you and me) in 2015
THE MARCH OF CATCH-UP TV
Adding to its decline, too, was the fact people’s viewing habits were changing. They no longer sat down to watch TV as they did in 2004.
Young people, who were The X Factor’s most important audience, started to prefer to watch on catch-up or look at clips on YouTube, but at that point the voting is over.
(In its heyday, phone votes cost 35p each, and netted ITV millions, before they became free via a voting app.)
It was regularly being trounced on Saturdays by Strictly Come Dancing and on Sundays by Antiques Roadshow.
OLD RIVALRY THAT LEFT A SOUR TASTE
Before telly stardom, Cowell had a successful career at record label RCA, which included masterminding the success of Robson and Jerome.
X Factor grew out of the successful Pop Idol format, which is owned by his rival Simon Fuller, and ran between 2001 and 2003.
In The X Factor’s prime, Beyonce performed a sensational duet with 2008 winner Alexandra Burke during the final
Simon Cowell was a judge on Pop Idol in 2001, and then started to appear on the American version, American Idol. Soon enough, he wanted to launch his own prime-time talent competition, and X Factor was born.
Fuller who had long regarded Cowell as a sort of vulgar, boastful younger brother, filed a series of lawsuits – seven in all. A settlement was reached in 2005 which gave Fuller executive producer status on X Factor.
Cowell agreed to carry on appearing on American Idol, and was also given a small slice of revenues from that show.
The deal expired in spring 2010 and Cowell then left American Idol and launched X Factor USA. He was greatly wounded when the latter was axed after three years.
But in the UK it was another story. Starting out in 2004, X Factor was a sensation from the start.
Britney Spears performed, Beyonce sang a duet. Michael Jackson was even in talks to be a mentor shortly before he died in 2009.
The Christmas No 1 slot belonged to the X Factor winner. Add to the mix a bit of sexual intrigue: Simon Cowell had a fling with fellow judge Dannii Minogue when she joined in 2007. Then there was Simon’s puppy-ish obsession with Cheryl Cole, who joined in 2008.
Starting out in 2004, X Factor was a sensation from the start, with Britney Spears performing on the show during a visit to the UK in 2008
STARTING TO FEEL THE PRESSURE
But what of the personal toll on Cowell himself? Amid considerable pressures, he was hospitalised in October 2017 after fainting at home in London and falling down the stairs.
He said: ‘It was a huge shock. They think I fainted because I had low blood pressure and so I have got to take good care of myself to sort that out.’
He began a diet, losing 3 st. At the time he explained: ‘People have said, ‘Oh, he’s had a gastric band fitted’ — but I haven’t. If I had, I would admit to it. This diet is all about what you put into your body. I met this doctor in LA and he told me my diet was appalling and I had to cut out fatty foods and certain drinks. I could see the difference. Cutting out sugar made a massive difference.’
In 2019, viewers were worried he was ‘slurring’ his words, which he blamed on new teeth veneers.
There were reports of a neck lift or thread facelift, which he batted away, saying: ‘There’s lots of things you can do now. You don’t just have to stuff your face with filler and Botox. But you have to be very careful with some of this stuff.’
Nevertheless, his appearance made him the butt of many jokes.
DISTRACTIONS OF FAMILY LIFE
At his side is his partner, and mother of his son Eric, seven, Miami socialite Lauren Silverman, 44.
Their relationship came as a shock to everyone: she was married to his close friend Andrew until it emerged that she was expecting Simon’s baby.
She and Andrew split up, and baby Eric was born in February 2014.
It is no exaggeration to say that he has completely changed Simon’s life.
One dramatic moment saw Sharon Osbourne douse her fellow judge Louis Walsh with a glass of water while Simon Cowell sat next to them
Within a week of his birth, Simon told me: ‘We are a proper family at last, and that’s what I always wanted.’
He says that wanting to be around to spend time with his son has finally made him amend his habit of working through the night and sleeping all day.
However, even after Lauren’s protracted divorce was settled, they have not married.
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
Having survived a serious accident on an electric bike last summer that broke his back and coming within ‘1cm of being paralysed’, Simon’s concentrating as never before on health and positivity.
Worth £385 million and approaching his 62nd birthday, he believes he still has a lot to offer the entertainment business and he has friends and fans in high places.
A year after his accident, he bounced back with barely a scratch.
He has been pictured on an electric bike again and has been on holiday in Barbados.
The final credits may be rolling for X Factor but Simon Cowell has his eyes set on the next curtain rise.
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