- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Judge Britney Spears is in control on “The X Factor.”

During the season debut airing Wednesday on Fox, the audience cheers her; Simon Cowell defers to her; and Miss Spears is crisp, if not a wit, in her contestant verdicts.

We get the pop princess who knows how to hold the spotlight, not the young woman who has struggled in her personal life, in the taped premiere of “X Factor.” Live episodes start airing in November.

In the episode screened Tuesday night at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Miss Spears frets that it will be difficult to “sit there and be opinionated.”

Not so much.

“I want to know who let you onstage,” she says to a contestant who insulted Demi Lovato, the other freshman joining Mr. Cowell and Antonio “L.A.” Reid as a judge.

“I felt I was listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks,” she tells one singer. “You’re flawless,” she says to another.

Jitters may be making her matter-of-fact, and even stern, but she appears unlikely to morph into a Paula Abdul-style pushover even if she gets more comfortable. Her “X Factor” style: sleek, form-fitting dresses and an impressive array of frowns and surprised smiles.

Mr. Cowell — the show’s creator, executive producer and the Scrooge of compliments — practically beamed as he tended to give Miss Spears the last word on contestants — which often is “no,” at least as this episode has it.

“You’re very good at this,” he tells Miss Spears at one point. “Everyone says I’m the mean one,” he adds later.

At one point, when a pained-looking Miss Spears joins the panel in rejecting a singer she had recorded with, and who is attempting a comeback, she hangs onto her composure.

There are more changes to “X Factor” than the addition of Miss Spears and Miss Lovato, who replaced season one’s Miss Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger after the show fell short of Mr. Cowell’s high-flying-ratings predictions.

The revamped “X Factor” retains the pro forma mix of oddballs and genuinely talented singers, but it’s less grandiose. One example: the addition of a reality TV-style backstage glance at contestant rivalries, but with a light touch.

Fox’s show isn’t the only game in town. NBC expanded this week’s return of “The Voice” to three days, with an episode airing Wednesday against “X Factor.”

Miss Spears, 30, who reportedly got a one-season, $15 million contract to join the show, appears to be its top draw. She earned the loudest audience applause at the public screening, held after Mr. Cowell and company put their mark on the cement outside Grauman’s on Hollywood Boulevard.

“I love you, Britney,” one fan called out. “We all love you, Britney,” chorused others.

She went from child performer to international star with her 1999 debut album, “Baby One More Time.” More hits followed, including “Oops! … I Did It Again” and “Toxic,” but her life was difficult, including rehab spells and time in a psychiatric ward.

Last fall, as she toured in support of her seventh album, the hit “Femme Fatale,” she told the Associated Press in London: “I hear the older you get, the wiser you get and the more you know what you want — so hopefully it’ll be a good year.”

Miss Lovato, who has faced her own personal challenges, looked at ease on “X Factor.” The 20-year-old singer showed poise, warmth — and a sense of stagecraft.

A contestant told of being bullied in school and taking comfort from Miss Lovato’s own challenges and her anti-bullying efforts. When the young woman, who wowed the judges with her performance, broke down sobbing, Miss Lovato beckoned her over for a long hug.

During a Q&A Tuesday, an audience member asked Mr. Reid if it was important to make sure aspiring stars can avoid the pitfalls of fame. It’s impossible to predict who will withstand the pressure, Mr. Reid replied, then lauded both Miss Spears and Miss Lovato as the “complete package” of talent and personality.

The two-hour “X Factor” season debut, airing 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday, is followed by a second episode Thursday.

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