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'X Factor,' 'American Idol': Fox faces new reality

Despite a dip for the network tentpole and massive changes for ‘Factor’ season 2, execs insist all is well

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Although Fox’s singing competitions dominate the ratings, they’re beginning to hit some alarmingly off-key notes in the headlines. American Idol, for starters, returned to lower-than-expected numbers last month (with CBS’ The Big Bang Theory threatening to end Idol‘s usual nightly dominance). Then last week, The X Factor fans were stunned when most of the new fall show’s on-air talent got pink-slipped: Host Steve Jones, judge Nicole Scherzinger, and even Simon Cowell‘s longtime TV spouse and fellow judge Paula Abdul won’t be back for season 2 (judge L.A. Reid is safe). ”Season 1 was basically an audition act,” explains Fox’s alternative entertainment chief, Mike Darnell, about the Factor exodus. ”There’s going to be a natural reassessment.” Fans seemed most upset by Abdul’s departure, but Darnell noted, ”It was a dynamic conversation about what’s the nature of the group going to be.” The media has floated star names like Beyoncé and Mariah Carey as possible replacements, but there’s no recasting plan in place yet. As for Idol‘s ratings slippage, some of it is inevitable after nearly 10 years, while some can be attributed to overall viewer fatigue with talent shows. That said, the J. Lo-led Idol is still No. 1, averaging nearly 20 million viewers a week while delivering more than 50 hours per season — way more content than its closest rivals. ”This constant glut [of singing shows] in the marketplace is bound to have an effect — and X Factor is part of that,” says Darnell, who adds that Fox will unveil some new format twists to Idol this season. ”It would be nice to reign forever as number one, but the show will still be incredibly valuable even if it’s not.”