I’m really intrigued by the Four-Chair Challenge, which starts on “The X Factor” this week.
Given the amount of skepticism I’ve been known to heap upon the FOX singing competition, that could perhaps cause you optimism as well.
Thus far, “X Factor” and FOX promotions haven’t done a great job of explaining this structural evolution for the Wednesday/Thursday show, which may explain why Simon Cowell and the network hosted a small group of reporters on Monday (September 30) afternoon to try teasing the Four-Chair Challenge.
Let me try to explain it a bit better than the teasers have done: Currently, all four judges/mentors have 10 remaining contestants in their respective categories. Starting on Wednesday, the process begins to winnow down to four per category. On the stage, there will be four seats or “chairs,” if you will. One by one, the singers in each category will perform and their respective coach/mentor/judge will have to decide whether or not to give one of the chairs to a singer. For a while, it’s pretty low-key. Yes or No. Easy peasy. But once all four chairs are filled, things get fun. As the four contestants sit in their chairs, briefly feeling comfortable with their positions, they have to watch as another contestant performs just feet away and their coach then has to give the “Yes” or “No” votes. If it’s a “Yes,” they have to execute a Switch, booting one of the singers from their chairs. It’s like musical chairs or a Yankee Swap, only with young people sensing their dreams are about to get shattered instead of prettily wrapped presents.
Cowell explains that the Four-Chair Challenge was transplanted from “X Factor: Holland” and while he acknowledged that it’s “possibly the worst title in the world,” the results have the potential to be wonderfully sadistic and also entertaining. There’s pressure on the performers in the spotlight. There’s pressure on the judges. There’s pressure on the squirming contestants in the “Yes” chairs, who are experiencing a really unpleasant roller-coaster. And this is all happening in front of a loud and vocal audience trying to sway the contestants and also (with some success) the judges. And it’s an audience that includes the parents and family members of the contestants, loved ones with the potential to take heartbreak with even less grace than the singers themselves. Throw in pauses more pregnant than Catherine Zeta-Jones at the 2003 Oscars and you get a recipe to add suspense where none existed previously.
Indeed, the biggest thing working in favor of the Four-Chair Challenge is that it isn’t really replacing anything of value. These next few episodes are taking the place of those forgettable installments in which the judges and a hand-picked celebrity friend sat in or around houses that may or may not have actually been theirs and listened to the singers perform in environments with dreadful acoustics and then made arbitrary decisions that featured little drama at all. Even if the entirety of the Four-Chair Challenge fails to live up to the 20 minutes I saw last night, it will still be an improvement over Judges’ Houses.
After the presentation, I was able to grab a few minutes with Simon Cowell and also with Demi Lovato to discuss the Four-Chair Challenge and also to talk about the show’s ratings, the inevitable One Direction appearance and more.
It turns out that my initial read that the Four-Chair Challenge could be sadistic, which I meant as a positive, has been used as a criticism across the pond, where the UK “X Factor” used a six-seat version earlier this year. So when I asked Cowell how heated the drama got, he immediately referred to the controversy.
“Unbelievable. We’d never done it before, so we weren’t sure what it was going to be like. Look, it has provoked an extreme reaction in the U.K. I’m not gonna lie, but however you cut people, people complain,” he says “We felt with this, less people had to compete, which was fairer. But this is the way I guess competitions work: You’ve gotta field your strongest contestant.”
Most of the concerns with the British take have involved the potential of meanness to contestants, but in the clip we saw, it was judge Paulina Rubio who was under the most stress.
“It’s definitely a lot of drama,” Lovato agrees. “The anxiety is crazy. I think we were all having anxiety attacks.”
Whereas the Judges’ Home round took place in opulent isolation, with the contestants often singing to no more than three or four people standing on a seaside cliff or an costly Manhattan loft, the Four-Chair Challenge is in front of a packed crowd and just because they didn’t know what was coming didn’t keep them from catching on. When I asked Cowell if the crowd became like a fifth judge, he disagreed and said that they were the first judge.
“We told the audience at exactly the same time as the contestants what was going to happen. The contestants didn’t know until the day. The audience felt, I think, empowered, involved and when they didn’t get their own way, they went nuts,” he says.
And no, it’s not an accident that the four chairs themselves are as low-key as possible, just simple and uncomfortable-looking white seats, not festooned with padding or lights and not prone to spinning, like on some other shows.
“Well, for obvious reasons, we kept the chairs as basic as possible,” Cowell smiles. “It was the premise more than the look of the chair.”
Regarding the possibility that people associated with a certain recent Emmy winning series might quibble about the originality, Cowell notes, “It was the Dutch show that did it and it worked very well for them and I thought we ought to do it here. As you say, I see elements of our shows in other shows. No one can complain about it.”
More on Page 2, including Cowell’s thoughts on the show’s ratings and a little tease about a One Direction performance.
My instinct watching the sample clips was that on a show with judges who also serve as mentors and get to claim victory if the winner comes from their category, the Four-Chair Challenge also offered the chance for mindgames. The judges evaluate each performer before each coach decides whether or not to allocate a chair, meaning that should Simon want to weaken Demi’s team of Girls to boost chances for his own Groups, he might want to give stronger reviews to weaker singers from her category and find flaws with potential frontrunners. Sadly, both Cowell and Lovato denied that this took place.
“With the judges, we’re all supportive of one-another,” Lovato swears. “Yes, it’s a competition between the judges as well, but at the end of the day, we don’t want just one person as winner to come out of this show. We want to find talent in pop stars of all ages and different brackets, so that at the end of the season or a year from now, we can say, ‘Oh, this group or this person came from ‘X Factor USA’ this year.’ Like Fifth Harmony and Emblem 3 have. They didn’t win, but they’ve come out and they’ve become so successful. I’m bringing Fifth Harmony on tour with me. I just announced that.”
Sadly, Cowell agrees.
“No. I didn’t do that,” Cowell says. “No. I should have done, but I didn’t. It was interesting for me, because I was rooting for the other people. And at the end of the day, they’re going to get signed to my record label, so I want the right people on the show.”
Plus, if the judges began playing mindgames, that would put the concentration on them, rather than the singers. Apparently there has been an attempt to avoid that so far this season. Later in our interview, I asked Cowell about the lack of contentious debate amongst the judges during the televised auditions, which all ended up being 4-0 or 3-0 or 2-0 (depending on judge availability) votes. That wasn’t an accident.
“My feeling is that there’s been too much emphasis on judges rather than contestants recently on all of these shows,” Cowell says. At the end of the day, we play a role, but it is a contestants’ show and it was just all getting out of whack. It was like, ‘You know what? It’s becoming boring.’ No one’s interested in seeing a bunch of millionaires squabble over something when you’ve got some poor kid who wants a break. It was just a different perspective.”
So there you have it. It’s all for the betterment of the show. And when it launched three weeks ago, it looked like “The X Factor” would be in serious need of betterment, premiering steeply down from last season. However, while some pundits predicted decimation when “The X Factor” began to face more and more original content, the ratings quickly leveled and even rose slightly last week.
“Because I’ve been in these situations so many times with records and shows where you have your lows and your highs and when they’re not as high as you want, you have to dig deep at that point,” Cowell says. “There’s too many shows on here at the moment, so you have to do something like we’ve just showed you now, to try to make the show better. If you make it better, the figures will go up.”
The “American Idol” veteran swears that when he got the overnight ratings after the “X Factor” premiere, he didn’t freak out.
“If the show was terrible, then I would,” he insists. “When the show’s good, when the contestants are good, I kinda get that it’s a challenge for me. Not everything should be easy. There was a time when we had this market to ourselves and we were getting 40 million people. Those days aren’t around anymore, because every network realizes, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta have one of these shows.’ So as far as the audience is concerned, we’ve gotta offer them something different and that was really why we brought you down here today, to say, ‘I think we have done something different and it’s exciting and it’s controversial.'”
One thing “The X Factor” won’t be able to rely on quite as much this season is One Direction. The insanely popular boy band had three performances last season, doing two songs in an early episode and returning for the finale. As big as One Direction already was last year, Cowell admits he may not be able to get them back as frequently now.
“I probably can’t, no,” Cowell chuckles. “They’re coming in to perform I think on the third or fourth live show, but that’s the only role they’ll play.”
Cowell admits that while it would be nice to tap into the voracious One Direction fanbase for some additional “X Factor” buzz, it’s not that simple.
“They’re all One Direction fans and I don’t like the idea of databasing and all that kind of stuff, because I like people to make their own mind up. I communicate with them through Twitter and stuff like that. They know what we’re doing, but it’s always their choice,” he says, calling One Direction’s current level of visibility and popularity “unbelievable.”
The “X Factor” Four-Chair Challenge premieres on Wednesday, October 2 on FOX.