Breaking X Factor in America

This weekend the nation gathers around the TV once again, to watch the X Factor final; the uber-karaoke contest live from the Wembley’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, thumbs poised for pollice verso. Tomorrow we will marvel at the victor who, with scrupulous and unaffected dignity, will be giving thanks to the loyal viewers for allowing him or her to live the dream.

Predicted viewing figures suggest a modern record which will grab the headlines and refocus attention on the Dark Lord himself, Simon Cowell. You know, he who can walk on water, the saviour of ITV, the man who has redefined event TV.

I, on the other hand, will be more interested to see how the narrative of the next chapter of Simon Cowell’s personal story shapes as he moves the X Factor juggernaut to trundle through America. Will his throne be exposed as a bench covered with velvet?

The man charged with managing this important move is Matt Hiltzic. Evidently, he told a friend of mine last weekend that he has been appointed as chief strategic advisor on X Factor, working directly with Cowell. This is because Max Clifford can’t, or won’t, travel to the States. In truth, Max is a very powerful operator in the UK but does not have the influence or raw collateral power to pull significant strings in the US.

Hiltzic is an interesting choice, as Cowell has elected not to use any of the big Hollywood TV agencies and sleb wranglers like PMK, BWR, Rogers & Cowan or Howard Bragman. Electing to keep his PR muscle in New York, he will stay closer to Rupert Murdoch and Sony and away from Peter Rice, who is the Fox man in LA, but something of a “acquired taste” within the News Corp camp.

Hiltzic made his name for managing the reputation of Glenn Beck. Beck is a leading US radio and television host, a conservative political commentator, author, and entrepreneur. He is the host of The Glenn Beck Program, a nationally syndicated talk-radio show that airs throughout the United States on Premiere Radio Networks; he is also the host of an eponymous cable news show on Fox News Channel.

Hiltzic is apparently a good man and has succeeded brilliantly in keeping Glenn Beck’s career on track after some disastrous comments about Obama, among other gaffes. Beck’s controversial views have quite possibly seriously dented his earning potential, however; despite millions of viewers, more than 200 companies have joined a boycott of Beck’s television program, making it difficult for Fox to sell ads. Hlitzic has worked for Glenn Beck for many years and is a family friend.

X Factor USA is set to start in September 2011. It’s already been trailed on Fox, almost a year before the show goes on air. There were huge promos running over Thanksgiving, during the NFL. This is an indicator of how desperate Simon is to break the show for Fox. It is a central plank for their 2011 autumn schedule. Fox traditionally have issues in Autumn because the other networks have the NFL. At present Fox only have one show in the top 20, Glee.

This all changes when American Idol comes back on air in January, as it takes Fox without fail to the No.1. slot. Next Autumn, Fox are planning to use the X Factor to crank themselves much higher up the ladder. Reportedly, they have committed a $30 million-plus promo budget for X-Factor for a marketing blitz which will roll out over the coming months, which will include billboards and a TV campaign.

Certain media outlets have fallen for the story of Fuller vs. Cowell, in my opinion, that misses the point – it is in fact Fox versus the other networks! Simon has a tough fight; despite the obituary notices, American Idol is still the biggest entertainment show on US TV by a long way, as it has been for the last seven seasons.

Its audience declined 7% last year, which is roughly in line with other shows; it opened last season on 29 million. Interesting that, in comparison, Simon Cowell’s other hyped show in the US – America’s Got Talent opens on about 11 million and reached about 14 million for the final. So if X factor USA starts on anything less than 20 million, it will be a chilling wake up call. The Americans only pay attention to success.

I read Simon Cowell’s Daily Mail chat yesterday, in which he suggested how he would get a bigger audience than American Idol so as to defeat ‘his rival Simon Fuller’. This is nearly as big as the humbug that his film venture (remember that?) was going to rival Disney. Figures suggest that in the US Cowell’s rivals are people like Ellen, Jay Leno, Oprah etc and other hosts / TV personalities.

Fishwives are voicing audible concern within Fox LA that Cowell’s overt style on X Factor may be too much for Americans, who like the soft diet an authentic talent show like American Idol brings them. The worry is that the X Factor style will perceived to be closer to Jerry Springer; too much confrontation, fakery, theatre. Cowell reinvented Saturday night TV here. But can he really reinvent the Barnumesque ballyhoo of X Factor in the US?

So let us hope, for Cowell’s sake, that Matt Hiltzic can keep the wolf from the door and the negativity locked safely away. It’s going to be a huge job, not helped by the assortment of meddlers in the camp. I will be following with interest. An old PR suppress agent once told me “a good deal of tyranny goes by the name of protection”. Wisdom indeed! Perhaps Hiltzic is a PR who has contacts within the ‘old’ media but understands the ‘new’. If so, there’s a chance he might just help Cowell big time.