‘X Factor’ TV show rivets Britain, heads to USA

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LONDON (AP) - Look out, America. Britain’s guilty pleasure, the cheesy “X Factor” TV show, is crossing the pond.

Will it work? Or is the American public tiring of Simon Cowell-powered TV extravaganzas?

A record audience of nearly 20 million British viewers flocked to the “X Factor’s” Sunday night finale, which awarded a 1 million-pound ($1.6 million) recording contract to painter Matt Cardle, heretofore unknown beyond his immediate circle of friends.

The British experience suggests the headline-grabbing, rags-to-riches show may be a smash in the United States when it debuts next year, even if it’s got some strong similarities to the popular but waning “American Idol.”

Cardle launched the first day of his new life Monday, embarking on a publicity blitz to try to drive his debut single, “When We Collide,” to become No. 1 on the British Christmas charts. That lucrative spot has in recent years tended to go to the X Factor winner, but last year went instead to Rage Against the Machine, boosted by an anti-X Factor, anti-Cowell movement on Facebook.

This year’s anti-X challenger is a 1952 John Cage composition that consists of more than four minutes of silence: Facebook backers argue it’s better to hear nothing at all than to hear “When We Collide.”

Love it or hate it, the “X Factor” is rarely ignored. It’s Britain’s water cooler show, discussed at work, on the Tube and in the tabloids. The British media revels in building contestants up only to watch them crash and burn, usually with a waterfall of tears and quivering promises to try again next year.

The show’s Horatio Alger approach echoes “American Idol.” This year’s finalists for the once-in-a-lifetime recording opportunity included a cashier from the Tesco grocery chain, a young single mother with two children, and Cardle, a painter and decorator who still lives with his parents.

But while “American Idol” is driven by compelling musical performances and snarky comments from judges, “X Factor” has an over-the-top schmaltz quality. Garish production numbers, complete with sexy but often bizarre dancers, back up the contestants, some of whom croak like frogs. “X Factor” judges run gossipy boot camps for the singers and scheme to promote the ones they are mentoring against other contestants. The singers themselves can include groups _ which often implode or turn on each other _ and much older wannabes than “American Idol’s,” which has a 15-to-28 year age limit for 2011.

Suffice to say, the “X Factor” has not impressed many British music critics.

“I really dislike it quite intensely,” said Neil McCormick, The Daily Telegraph music critic. “As you saw last night, you get several weeks of very cruel and contrived and sentimental TV and end up with an overlong finale featuring a couple of karaoke singers who have no chance of having a successful music career.”

He said the show has produced a series of “one-hit wonders” instead of finding artists who can have substantial careers _ with the notable exception of R&B singer Leona Lewis, who has gone on to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic since winning in 2006.

Still, McCormick predicted that Cowell’s “evil genius” could make the show a success in the United States just as “American Idol” is slipping a bit.

Others in the struggling music business take a far more generous view of “X Factor” even if the music is sometimes quite lame.

Neil Warnock, chief executive of The Agency Group concert bookers, said the “X Factor” is bringing young fans back into concert halls after a long hiatus.

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