X Factor: Simon and L.A. on 'Humbling' Ratings, Weak Groups, and How Much 'Pretty' Matters

No debuting fall TV series got more publicity — or carried higher ratings expectations — than Simon Cowell’s U.S. version of The X Factor. But while initial ratings for the show’s four audition episodes didn’t hit  American Idol-level numbers — Episode 3, for example, drew a respectable, but not sensational, 11.5 million eyeballs — executive producer and head judge Simon Cowell says he thinks the show can grow to behemoth proportions as it heads into its “Boot Camp” and live-performance episodes. Cowell and fellow judge L.A. Reid sat down with TVLine to talk about the challenge of giving honest critiques in a live TV format, the question of whether or not to allow gay and lesbian contestants to talk openly about their sexual orientation, and the perils of “pimping” contestants too early in the season.

TVLINE | Simon, going into the season, you said you wanted The X Factor to be No. 1 in the ratings, that you weren’t going for any silver medals. So while 12.5 million viewers for a series premiere would make most folks happy, I’m wondering how you’re feeling about the early numbers: Humbled? Concerned?
SIMON COWELL | Humbled, but still competitive. We’re gonna get there in the end. I do believe that.
L.A. REID | Absolutely.
COWELL | And I say that after the first two weeks, taking into account what I’m reading, the word of mouth, the buzz. Buzz is more important than hype, you know?

TVLINE | I think, though, there’s a sense that the nation is experiencing a collective talent-competition fatigue. And if you’re going to achieve Idol-level ratings, you need to somehow convince an additional 8 million people to hop aboard The X Factor. What’s your pitch to convince people to invest four hours per week watching your show?
REID | People who say there’s a fatigue are generally not the public, because the public is into this. I mean, you can look at the YouTube hits and see that with each one of our contestants, on their own, the numbers are just through the roof. That speaks to the fans. They’re into this. Maybe our competitors or our critics at some level would like to think this is a fatigued genre, but I don’t think that’s true at all.
COWELL | I also think we’re approaching this, rightly so, as a start-of-decade show. You’ve got to bring in an audience, genuinely, who have not watched these types of shows before. That’s the key. We did this with Idol: You start young, and then, over time, as long as you’re good — as long as the talent’s good and engaging — they’ll tell their friends about it. You’re gonna see fatigue on other shows. That’s my gut feeling.
REID | That’s the beauty of [lowering The X Factor‘s minimum contestant age to 12]. That’s really smart. It really does speak to the kids. I went home this afternoon, my son was with his friend. His friend is 8 years old. The little kid was at the table singing, “Stop Looking at My Mom” [an original song by X Factor hopeful Brian Bradley]. It was random — he didn’t know I was in the room. And my kid isn’t running to the TV saying “Let’s watch X Factor!” This kid was a genuine fan.

TVLINE | You do make a point: There’s a whole generation of viewers who may not have been old enough to remember Kelly Clarkson got her start on Idol.
COWELL | I think you’ve got the bulk of kids under 16 who’ve never watched these shows — ever. I call them the YouTube generation. And that’s why I’m always careful of saying to people “You’re gonna love this,” because they’re gonna make their own minds up. We’re in a different world now with Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, where people are gonna decide the fate of this show. All we have to do is make the show as real as possible, make the contestants as great as we possibly can. And importantly, on the live shows, put on a show you’ve never, ever seen before.

TVLINE OK, speaking of the live shows, and bringing this back to your competitors — American Idol and The Voice — I’d say one of my biggest pet peeves as a viewer is that you get, say, 90 seconds of a contestant singing. And after that, you get three minutes of judges saying absolutely nothing of any importance. Saying nothing has almost become an art form.
REID | [Laughs] You won’t have that problem with us!

TVLINE Well, obviously the two of you aren’t exactly shy with your opinions. But it’s one thing to be good in the auditions, where everything is carefully edited. The live telecasts seem to be the undoing of a lot of reality judges. Do you have quips ready in the back of your brain that you can use when a performance falls flat? And how tough do you plan to be?
COWELL You can’t [have anything ready] until you’re there. I actually have worked with people who’ve done what you just mentioned. One person who turned up with a book of all these crazy insults, but they were all out of context. Somebody would sing and it was like, turn to Page 27: “You’re like a raspberry donut without the filling.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” I swear to God!
REID | Every reaction is a genuine reaction.

TVLINE I think it must be harder than it looks, though. Simon, you’re one of the only people who’s sat in one of those chairs and managed to be consistently honest, tough, funny, and concise.
COWELL Well, thank you. I said to L.A., the very first day, because when you do the audition shows it’s a little like a live show. I said to L.A., “All you’ve got to do is do what you’ve done in your real life.” Because I’ve sat there with him when he’s been complimentary and not so complimentary. But at least you’ve got the comfort that you’ve created stars. So you just say whatever you think. And Paula, you certainly don’t have to worry with her. She says the first thing that comes into her head. [Laughs] But I take your point: I’m actually bored of the term “judges” now. You see them on every show. And if I could find a new word I would, because it’s more than that — it’s [about] not underestimating how intelligent the audience is. The audience knows a good singer from a bad singer. And you’ve got to be in the same mindset as them. And you’ve also got to give some constructive criticism to the artist as to why they haven’t got it right. Otherwise, anyone could do this job.

TVLINE Do you ever get butterflies before you dole out a harsh critique?
COWELL | I couldn’t care less

TVLINE So no problems being honest, then?
REID | Honesty doesn’t take work. It’s lying that takes work. [Laughs]
COWELL | [Laughs]
REID | Just say what’s on your mind. Because we really work in [the] music [business], and we really develop talent. So giving a critique or an opinion, it’s a genuine one. I promise you I don’t have a book of notes. I’m gonna say what I think. And by the way, I don’t always care if I’m right about what I said. I’m just gonna say what I feel in the moment. The honesty works.
COWELL |There was a girl [from the auditions], and she’s divided a lot of opinion — Tiah [Tolliver]. [And I’ve had a lot of people ask me] “What were you thinking on the day?” The great thing about music is there’s no definitive right or wrong. It’s subjective. But at least you’ve got an opinion. And most of the time, the contestants on these shows have got no clue what they’re doing. They’ve made all the wrong decisions, they’ve worn the wrong clothes, they’ve chosen the wrong style of music for themselves. And our job is to point them in the right direction. Leona Lewis, when she came on [The X Factor UK], hadn’t got a clue initially. She was fantastically talented, but we had to guide her to where we wanted her to end up in the real world. And that’s the thrill when you’ve got a great contestant who you’re mentoring properly.
REID | And if I’m on the fence about it, and [Simon] loves it, it’s really easy. If I were a betting man, you bet with the streak or you don’t bet at all.

TVLINE L.A., we’ve heard you repeatedly talk about contestants having “the face, the name, the voice.” I’ve found American voters, at least, don’t care as much about looks as you’d expect: People can do really well on these shows who are a little unconventional or quirky in the looks department. Do face and name really count to you?
REID | [We talked earlier] about the difference between a person winning a talent competition and having a career afterward, right? I’m a fan of star-making — people who are able to make stars. Watching what Simon’s done with Leona Lewis — and by the way Leona Lewis has a star’s name. It has a ring. To me it’s like lyrics — does it sing well, does it roll off your tongue well? And if it doesn’t, guess what? It’s odd, it’s weird, and it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean it has to be simple. It could be Renee Zellweger. That just works.

TVLINE So could we see you advocating a name change for a contestant you’re mentoring?
REID I’ve been known to do it.
COWELL | We were talking about Drew Ryniewicz. Drop the Ryniewicz — she’s now Drew.

TVLINE And L.A., what about looks?
REID | It matters. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters. That’s not our defining, decision-making factor: We don’t see a contestant and say, “Because you look good or don’t look good, we’re going to say yes or no.”
COWELL | But also it’s about being comfortable in your skin. We’ve got this guy Josh [Krajcik] we saw in Chicago. He’s never gonna be good-looking, but at the same time you don’t want to lose what’s his real identity. Because it suits him being who he is.
REID So true.
COWELL | When I worked with Susan Boyle, it was very interesting. The first TV [appearance] we did with her after she won, she was overstyled, and she didn’t look like Susan anymore. And I asked her, “Do you feel comfortable?” And she said no. And I said, “I don’t feel comfortable, either.” I just want you to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s what you’ve got to learn with these artists. L.A.’s point is, if you’re cute, make it an asset.

TVLINE Another thing we need to discuss is the “groups” category on X Factor. [Eventually, all contestants are put in one of four categories: Boys, Girls, Over 30s, or Groups.] The group acts we saw going through in the audition rounds were pretty underwhelming. That one boy band, 4Shore, I couldn’t imagine what you were all so excited about. So I have to ask: Was there a collective panic among the mentors, with each one of you hoping you wouldn’t have to mentor the groups category?
REID | [Howls with laughter]
COWELL | You will see what’s known as an intervention. Major. I don’t want to give it away, but you’ll see.

TVLINE So we might see you mix and match group members, or maybe add some solo auditioners into a group?
COWELL |[Chiding] You’ll have to watch the show.

TVLINE I also wanted to talk about what’s known among reality fans as “pimped” contestants — when the judges or mentors push too hard on behalf of a particular singer too early in the season, and it begins to create a backlash among voters.
REID | Oh this is a new one!

TVLINE Simon, you know about this: It backfired during Idol finales when the judges were clearly pushing David Archuleta over David Cook, and Adam Lambert over Kris Allen.
COWELL | It’s a very good point, actually. I watch and I learn, and I’m aware of this. You’ve got to show the interesting contestants in the beginning. You’d be crazy not to. What we did on the boot camp show and the home-visit show is that, I don’t think we had any favored nations here. Everyone — whether you’re good or bad — gets equal billing. And it’s more interesting, funny enough, for the audience to make their own mind up. And I’m learning this more and more now.

TVLINE That also leads into the idea of backstory. Simon, I know you’ve previously said that it’s important to have those packages talking about the contestants’ lives before they came onto the show, but I’ll say from my perspective I’m usually more fascinated by the workaday “burrito slingers” than the ones where it’s like “I was attacked by wolves and then my house was carried away in a tornado.”
COWELL | What about both? That would be a good story.
REID [Howling] That’d be great.
COWELL | [Laughs] I’m selling burritos but at the same time my restaurant was in a hurricane!

TVLINE What about backstories involving gay and lesbian contestants? We saw several of them on The Voice, and it was kind of surprising, seeing how we’d never seen gay or lesbian contestants reference their sexuality over 10 seasons of Idol.
COWELL I don’t care. I couldn’t care less. We behave like we’re in the music business. When we sign an artist, there is no form where you fill in. If you’re a star, you’re a star.

TVLINE But will these contestants be able to discuss their sexual orientation out loud in front of a camera?
COWELL Absolutely. I couldn’t care less.

TVLINE And how much backstory is too much backstory?
COWELL | There’s a [problem with] repetition, and I’m very aware of this: Once you’ve told the story, it’s told. I don’t need to hear it over and over and over again. But we genuinely don’t know when the contestants come out [for auditions] — that’s why we ask them tons of questions: We’re not fed any notes and we have no biographical information. Chris Rene was an interesting point. We knew zilch about this guy; he was very cool and volunteered everything [about his drug addiction]. We learned about him at the same time as the audience, but it’s not something I think we need to constantly refer back to.

TVLINE And Chris Rene did it all with an original song, too.
REID | I thought that was really special: A couple people who came out with original songs [or arrangements] trended the highest on YouTube.

TVLINE But does that excite you or scare you as mentors — having an artist who already has a really strong opinion of what they want to do, a fixed idea of their musical identity, maybe even their own original music.
REID | That just tells me they have a post-season career. That’s what it says.
COWELL | Try telling Brian Bradley what to do. Forget it.

Are you sticking with X Factor to see how Boot Camp and the live-performance shows play out? Anything Simon or L.A. said in this interview that thrills or offends you? Sound off in the comments, and for all my X Factor news, views, and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!