'X Factor's' Simon Cowell & L.A. Reid: The Billboard Cover Story
'X Factor's' Simon Cowell & L.A. Reid: The Billboard Cover Story

Can the 'X' Men Turn the Show's Ratings Into Music Success?

This is an excerpt. For a longer version, grab a copy of Billboard.

The singing competition field is crowded, to say the least. It's been 11 years since "Pop Idol" debuted in the United Kingdom, and 10 years since the U.S. version, "American Idol," came to these shores. In that time, show after show has followed with the goal of capturing a mass TV audience, and maybe also discovering talent and launching careers: "The Voice," "The Next," "Opening Act," "Duets"-the list goes on.

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Eight years ago, Simon Cowell brought forth his spin on the "Idol" formula in the United Kingdom: "The X Factor." A ratings success (it's the United Kingdom's most-watched Saturday night program, with an average viewing audience last year of 11 million, according to ITV, which airs the show), it arrived stateside in 2011. And though it didn't garner the audience of 20 million that Cowell boasted it would, more than 12 million viewers watched it weekly, according to Nielsen. Those numbers lagged the 15.8 million viewers of "The Voice," which for the first time will compete for viewers with "The X Factor" this fall, but the show stands out from the pack when it comes to music itself.

"The X Factor" remains the only one to tie the winner with the executives they will work with as a recording artist: Cowell and Antonio "L.A." Reid. According to Cowell, it's "one of the reasons I believe our shows have been better. If you just booked recording artists on these panels, they can't do what I've done for a living and I can't do what they've done-it's a different skill set. That's the most important reason we have done well."

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The U.K. version produced its first international hitmaker in 2007: Leona Lewis. One Direction, Rebecca Ferguson and Olly Murs have followed, all signed to Cowell's Syco label and released in the United States through Columbia. Among Lewis, One Direction and Ferguson, the three acts have sold 3.2 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Murs' stateside debut is slated for Sept. 25.)

Reid-who marked his first year as chairman/CEO of Epic Records in July-turned the first season of the U.S. "X Factor" into an Epic farm system, immediately signing four contestants to the label with a deal for a fifth-runner-up Josh Krajcik-in the works.

When the show returns Sept. 12-with new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato replacing the first season's Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul-music buyers will have a chance to determine if Reid's instincts were spot on. Epic will release debuts from rapper Chris Rene and R&B singer Marcus Canty in October, with season-one winner Melanie Amaro following in December. Further recognizing the show's power, Reid snagged Cher Lloyd, a season-seven finalist on the U.K. "X Factor," for Epic, not Columbia. Her first U.S. charting single, "Want U Back," peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and her U.S. album debut arrives in October.

"There would be no point in us doing the show if we genuinely didn't believe that, at the end, there would be some sort of legacy that makes the show worthwhile," Cowell says. "Over the years we've gotten better at putting an infrastructure around it. It's why I put myself on the shows. You've got to be on that panel and use all the years of experience you have had as A&R man and put that on display for all those people. It's quite unnerving."

"The X Factor" is the crown jewel at Syco, the joint venture between Cowell and Sony Music Entertainment. There are local versions of the program being produced in 41 territories including China, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Russia and Vietnam. The U.S. version airs in 166 countries. Syco reports that "X Factor" artists have had 39 No. 1s in the United Kingdom.

Cowell adds, "What we had to prove to the whole industry is that this is a process that you can trust. If we use the time on the show to mentor you properly, help you to become a proper recording artist, you can compete with the biggest artists around the world. It takes years to develop that trust, and we are getting a bit better at it now."