Credit: Michael Becker/ FOX
Simon Cowell, American Idol

Fox renewed The X Factor by early November during its first two years on the air.

So far this fall … [crickets].

The industry’s widespread assumption is that the bombastic competition series will be canceled due to low ratings. That’s been our assumption, too. Yet we’re hearing Factor‘s fate is not yet sealed. In fact, sources say Fox and Factor producers have started renewal discussions on a potential fourth season. The negotiations are for a reduced number of episodes (more on that later). Mind you, these talks are just that — talks — and no guarantee of a pickup. But some sources contend the show’s renewal odds have actually turned slightly in favor of the show coming back, which is surprising (Fox, FremantleMedia and Syco had no comment).

You know the numbers are ugly: Factor‘s third season dive-bombed. The singing competition debuted down 38 percent among adults 18-49 from season 2 (which, in turn, was down from season 1). Since then, Factor has hit one all-time-low rating after another. “If it’s good, the ratings will go up,” X Factor chief Simon Cowell boldly told EW at the start of the season. “If it’s terrible, they’ll go down.” So by Cowell’s own logic, The X Factor this season has been “terrible.”

So why consider bringing it back?

The reasons for Fox’s hesitation to pull the plug on Factor are complex and network-y, but have some compelling logic. First, reality shows are malleable — Fox can once again tweak the show’s talent, format and budget to try and improve its performance. Not that Fox’s previous Factor fixes have actually succeeded in boosting the show’s ratings, but Factor airs in 45 countries and is a massive hit in many of them. The show’s overseas fame makes Fox’s edition feel like an ill-constructed toy that’s always a couple repairs away from working. Also: Factor is considered an ad-sales-friendly property.

Most importantly, Fox knows next fall’s shows might fare worse than Factor, and some almost certainly will. Wednesday’s edition of Factor is averaging 7.3 million viewers and a 2.4 rating in adults 18-49. Glee, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Bob’s Burgers, Dads, The Mindy Project and MasterChef Jr. are all averaging lower numbers (and that’s including DVR playback, which doesn’t much help reality shows). The only new Fox series this fall that’s out-averaging Wednesday’s Factor is Sleepy Hollow (not counting Almost Human, which just premiered this week). To network executives and advertisers, new shows are scary mystery boxes, while Factor is, for better or worse, a known quantity. Canceling X Factor means filling three additional hours next fall with scary mystery boxes.

There is also an option for X Factor that hasn’t yet been attempted: Shortening the show, which I’m hearing is the plan if the series is renewed. Factor is currently three hours a week on Fox’s 15-hour schedule. That’s fine for audition episodes, which tend to be Factor‘s highest-rated hours, but once the series settles into regular competition mode, a two-hour commitment might make more sense, especially since Thursday’s Factor is the show’s weakest link. ABC’s Dancing With the Stars seemingly benefited from dumping its results show this season (it’s hard to know for sure).

So when you look at Factor with all these, well, factors … renewing the franchise begins to look a bit more attractive. A bit. There is still the problem of the show’s uncool brand; it struggles to strike a pose in the long shadow of The Voice. And the show’s season-by-season ratings trend is really worrisome — there is no reason to think that Factor won’t drop yet again.

Unlike previous years, Fox will probably wait until after Factor‘s current cycle concludes before deciding its fate (by January, we’re hearing). These next last few weeks of shows could make all the difference. Factor is down, down, down … but not yet out.

Episode Recaps

Simon Cowell, American Idol
The X Factor
Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio judge Season 3.
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