US X Factor 2013 – Season Review and Final Preview

After a bumpy, raw-feeling season, the American version of X Factor is now clinging on for dear life. The show has recently been regularly placing dead last or just above it among the four major broadcast networks in every available metric. A showing of under 4 million viewers two weeks ago was a particularly appalling nadir, and this past week it came in behind NBC’s The Sing-Off, making it America’s fourth-placed reality singing show.

Given this collapse, and the talk of Simon returning to XFUK, I was shocked to hear that there is currently buzz about the show being revived yet again next year.

How is this possible? I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of the television industry, but apparently Fox has a lot of other problems on its schedule as well. Network execs seem to see a single-night version of XFUS with relatively inexpensive judges like Kelly Rowland and Demi Lovato as a cheap way to fill space while additional replacement programming is developed. Of course, this is also the network that thought it was a good idea to give the even worse-performing Glee a two-year renewal last year.

If the show returns on a single night next year, one might expect Simon to in turn insist that it continue airing during the World Series. This year XF’s ratings plummeted from a passable 7-8 million (~2.0 and often second in the all-important 18-49 demo) before the break to a dire 4-5 million (~1.3 in the demo) afterwards.

The compressed schedule also forced a string of four double eliminations in a row, which led to a relatively ragged, uncontrolled feel to the series. Offstage growth narratives were virtually non-existent, and producers lost a few acts I thought they might have preferred to keep in a bit longer. While each week it was often clear that one or two acts were being nudged towards the exit, the remainder of the bottom three often materialized out of the pool I would have considered to be producer favorites.

Any attempts at producer control were further hindered by a judge panel that bickered regularly and dismissed each other’s opinions. Note to judges: when most of the your interaction consists of talking over each other and telling each other to “shut up,” it doesn’t really make for gripping television. The bickering seemed to hinder Simon’s attempts to gracefully chip away at certain acts. The judge panel also appeared to give relatively fair (if limited) criticism to a surprising extent, failing even to cover for commercial favorites Restless Road on several occasions.

Among the celebrity judges, Kelly Rowland was the standout. She’s grown more nuanced in her critiques since her appearance on XFUK, and most fans seem to find her quite likeable. I would suspect that she might anchor the judging panel next year if XFUS returns with a slashed budget that can’t afford Simon.

Of course, a rushed schedule and often underwhelming judging panel were not the only problems with a show that often felt cursed. Particularly glaring was a mixup in the phone numbers assigned to acts at the end of the first show with a public vote, which forced an incredibly odd single hour show in which 13 acts all performed their save songs. The show also had trouble staying on schedule in several of its first live weeks, resulting in an annoying degree of judge rushing during many decisions.

Despite all of its problems, this series still looks like it may produce XFUS’s most significant commercial success yet. Alex & Sierra’s performance of “Gravity” last week was their second in as many weeks to hit #1 on iTunes, and at one point they had 3 songs inside the top 12, including one from the preceding week. Their showing is particularly remarkable given the low viewership numbers for the show itself this year. It will be interesting to see whether the market’s apparent interest in A&S can be translated into post-show success, and whether Simon sees fit to sign some of the other preseason favorites that crashed out a bit earlier than expected.

This year, the main Sofabet team wrote pre-final summaries of each finalist’s journey [Luke/Nick/Sam], which is a format that I’ve enjoyed. However, I lack the fortitude to write an entire week-by-week article about Jeff Gutt. So here’s a brief revisit of my preseason 1-16 predictions, ordered by actual finish up to 4th place.

14th (overs) James Kenney (predicted finish 13th)

James was targeted by producers with minimal production and dowdy styling on a judges’ round night in which all of the other overs delivered well. He gave another vocally decent but fairly anonymous and slightly dated performance, and that was it for him.

14th (groups) RoXxy Montana (predicted finish 12th)

I thought Simon might put RoXxy Montana through in the judges’ round based on his comments in the four-chair challenge round (more specifically, his disdain for Sweet Suspense.) However, Sweet Suspense came out with quite a bit of producer support in the judges’ round show, and RM’s sometimes-intriguing, sometimes-ropey version of “Royals” wasn’t enough to overcome the shift in favor. Simon appeared genuinely conflicted at the elimination, engaging in extended stalling that didn’t make for very good TV. In any event, it’s unlikely RM would have made it far in the public vote based on the Twitter support graph shown during that episode.

14th (girls): Danie Geimer (predicted finish 8th)

It was clearly between Danie and Khaya to leave first in the girls’ category. In her judges’ round performance, Danie was stitched up with no stage support and a bunch of red & black. It would have been a very underwhelming version of “Wrecking Ball” even if it had been better supported, though. Contrary to my initial suspicion, the producers had no qualms about putting the vocally stronger but not particularly commercial Khaya through instead.

13th: Carlos Guevara (predicted finish 10th)

Carlos showed a very raw, pitchy voice and had a poor, hunched-over stage presence in nearly all of his performances, and I was surprised Paulina kept him ahead of Josh Levi in the judges’ round. Carlos was targeted eight ways to Sunday in the first live show with a public vote. That vote was then scrapped, but it didn’t matter, as he duly hit bottom following the save song night anyway.

12th: Sweet Suspense (predicted finish 13th)

Sweet Suspense got a lot of help during judges’ week, with strong comments, a big production, and doors labeled with each of the girls’ names. However, the audience must have failed to respond the following week, because in week 3 they were put on early with a messy production – colour vomit and long-angle shots, ahoy! – and a choppy arrangement of a dated song that anyone would have struggled to make stand out. I initially disliked this group, but actually thought they improved markedly across their performances on the show and delivered one of the better save show performances, which was unfortunately torpedoed hard, and rather cleverly, by their own mentor Simon. Ah well.

11th: Rachel Potter (predicted finish 11th)

Rachel proved to be just as erratic as her pre-live performances suggested she would be, capable of delivering on ballads but not uptempo numbers. A screechy big note at the end of her week 3 rendition of  “Alone” saw her hit the road.

10th: Khaya Cohen (predicted finish 13th)

Khaya had one of the biggest voices in the competition and consistently delivered a quality Amy Winehouse impersonation, winning a handful of my free weekly internet votes. However, she was never able to fully conquer the awkwardness of her movements on stage, and was saved in week 3 only to go out at the bottom of the voting in week 4.

9th: Tim Olstad (predicted finish 9th)

Tim never wowed, but achieved a bland vocal competency that saw him through a couple of weeks despite Simon painting him as a “funeral director” and producers giving him an incredibly weird, off-putting production the week before he went out. It was in the week in which Simon laid off the criticism a bit, of course, that Tim actually hit the bottom 3 and left the competition.

8th: Lillie McCloud (predicted finish 5th)

Lillie delivered some good performances but never quite managed to live up to her challenge performance, and Simon unhelpfully chipped away at her with comments about being theatrical and dated every week. Week 5 saw her snap at him for it after being on early with virtually no support. It sealed her fate.

7th: Josh Levi (predicted finish 4th)

Eliminated by Paulina Rubio during the judges’ week, Josh was brought back by the producers in a move that I’m fairly doubtful was planned in advance due to its shoddy handling. In my opinion, Josh showed some star potential in several of his later performances, particularly considering his age. However, he wound up against Rion in the week 5 bottom 3 and the show let go of him. I’d be interested to see – not that we ever will – whether Josh was scraping the bottom of the votes the whole way or whether the producers felt they absolutely couldn’t vote out the inspirational handicapped girl the first time she came up for elimination.

I continue to think that Josh has some legitimate commercial potential, but that he likely needs to be grouped up to have a significant shot of breaking through. He might be likable and good-looking enough to put through the Disney TV star mill as well.

6th: Ellona Santiago (predicted finish 3rd)

Ellona showed good stage presence and moves throughout the competition, and I agree with the judges that she really started to connect vocally in the last couple of weeks. However, she finished at the bottom of the voting in the last of the double elimination weeks following a night that I thought should have been reasonably helpful. Her relatively milquetoast personality throughout the competition may have played a role in that, although a good number of internet folks have insisted that “Applause” was a terrible choice for her first song that night. I’ll be curious to see whether she is signed by anyone. She’s got a big voice and clear demographic niche, but she still went out fairly early, and she doesn’t quite have Josh Levi’s upside, in my opinion.

5th: Rion Paige (predicted finish 1st)

Another act that for me never quite equalled her challenge performance, Rion gave decent if slightly screechy vocal performances all the way until she hit the bottom 3 in week 5. She was saved only to promptly find herself back there again the following week, where she was dismissed against Carlito. I suspect that producers may have shared my fairly dim view of her mainstream commercial prospects and concluded that her second straight bottom 3 appearance was the perfect time to eliminate her without arousing too much audience ire.

4th: Restless Road (predicted finish 2nd)

Restless Road continued to be listenable, albeit far from great, throughout the competition. However, while they got plenty of backing vocal support on most of their songs (including “unplugged” numbers), they didn’t receive nearly the level of pimping that, say, 1D did during their XF run. They would have been an easy pick for the 1D Niche Demographic Appeal Memorial Third Place Slot in the final, but I was a bit surprised to discover that audience interest was limited enough to send them out ahead of two-time B3 participant Carlito.

Perhaps their limited stage presence and lack of engaging, fun personalities hurt them. That said, Twitter activity today suggests that plenty of teens remain on board with the “manband” despite their fourth-place finish on the country’s fourth-ranked singing show. Post-show, I expect that they will moderately outperform prior fourth-place boyband finishers Emblem3, and am curious to see whether they can break out to the broader teen girl audience beyond that.

That brings us up to date, so now, ahead of this week’s final, here’s my 1-2-3 prediction, along with how I’d originally slated them in that preseason 1-16 prediction article.

Predicted 3rd: Carlito Olivero (original prediction: 13th)

I thought Carlito might be the boy to go during the judges’ round based on Simon’s hostility to him during the challenge round, despite finding him the most polished of the non-Josh boys. However, he gave one of his better performances of the series that week, and Paulina instead kicked out Josh.

Carlito’s first few weeks were undistinguished, and he was targeted early on. He hit the bottom 3 in week 4 but was saved against Tim, an act the producers had already targeted even harder the preceding week. Following his week 4 save, Carlito started playing strongly to his Latino roots, at Simon’s apparent suggestion. His average performance quality improved markedly at that point, although I’d say it’s still far from great. He became the first and only act this season to bounce, and was then saved for the second time against Rion. Carlito appeared to be targeted for elimination in the semifinal, which suggested to me that he might have been saved a second time due to a fear of Rion bouncing into the final. Given how many acts failed to bounce in this series, I was pretty surprised to see him get through over Restless Road.

I predict Carlito will finish third in the final. He’s been in the bottom 3 a couple of times already and is the only one of the 3 remaining acts not to put several songs well up the iTunes Top 100. It’s possible he’ll pick up enough teen girl votes from Restless Road to place higher, however.

Predicted 2nd: Jeff Gutt (original prediction: 7th)

Jeff’s base saw him through to the top half, as I expected, but he never really got hit with the significant deramping I was anticipating. The producers started the season with VTs harping on his age and the fact that it’s his “last last chance” but in recent weeks have switched to pushing the significantly stronger son angle. They even gave him a guitar to hold at one point.

Performance-wise, Jeff’s largely unchanged from the start of the competition, but his voice has grown a bit more clean and powerful, he’s gained a bit of stage presence, and most importantly he’s managed to connect somewhat better. Indeed, his cover of “Hallelujah” from the semifinal hit the iTunes top 10. Despite that, I’m still fairly doubtful about his post-show commercial prospects as a recording artist. Perhaps, as one XF blog commented, he can land a touring gig with Rock of Ages out of this.

I predict Jeff will finish second in the final. Unlike Carlito, he’s never been in the bottom 3, but he doesn’t have nearly as much interest as Alex & Sierra on iTunes, Twitter, or Youtube.

Predicted 1st: Alex & Sierra (original prediction: 6th)

I always liked Alex & Sierra, going so far as to call them the only act with “a bit of legit musical potential” in my preseason preview. However, I expected them to wash out near the bottom of the producer-favored acts due to the lack of a good story and clear demographic niche. Apparently, the large number of folks I’ve run across on the internet who share a similar opinion have all been doggedly voting for them. Having a bunch of vocal fans who think you could go out at any time is a pretty darn strong position, as it turns out, and it sustained A&S through a good but somewhat uneven start to the competition.

But the duo also fulfilled archetypes that have been successful in past shows to a greater degree than I was anticipating. I thought that Sierra did a reasonable approximation, given the limited number of weeks in the competition this year, of the “shy swan” narrative that is so powerful for female contestants on these shows. Alex, meanwhile, did an able job of holding and sometimes even strumming a guitar during several performances, thereby fulfilling the requisite WGWAG component for the duo.

In the last two weeks, A&S have really kicked into high gear as their striking performances of “Say Something” and “Gravity” have both hit #1 on iTunes, and several of their other performances have charted inside the top 20. It’ll be interesting to see if they can turn this strong consumer momentum – the best I’ve seen from any US reality show act on iTunes to date – into lasting commercial success.

I predict that Alex & Sierra will win. They’ve never been in the bottom 3, and they’re soundly beating Jeff Gutt in every metric I’ve looked at to gauge support.

So, what did I learn from this year’s show? As Sofabet’s community of commenters have been poring over the week-by-week voting statistics of the just-finished UK series and asking what lessons can be learned, here are my lessons from the US version so far:

  • When trying to gauge an act’s ability level, average preseason performances. I focused more on the live challenge round than the heavily edited auditions, and was misled slightly by above-par challenge performances from Rion and Lillie.
  • The iTunes charts are now important to watch after a show. They provide significant guidance regarding support from the more intense viewers who are likely to vote, and are surely watched closely by producers to gauge an act’s post-show potential. By contrast, on Youtube I believe Ellona’s performances were second only to A&S’s version of “Say Something” in views on the week in which she went out.
  •  An act that nearly everyone on the internet seems to like, but expects to go out fairly early based on the results of past series and/or demographic analysis, makes for a very dangerous underdog.
  • Successful contestants on the US show need personality and stage presence to back up vocal quality probably even more than in the UK. Otherwise I think we would have seen Khaya and Ellona stay in at least a week or two longer than they actually did.
  • In future US shows, be on constant lookout for any hint that a male contestant might possibly hold a guitar at some point, even if they don’t audition with one.

What have you made of the US X Factor this year, and what’s your take on the final three? As ever, do let us know in the comments below.

11 comments to US X Factor 2013 – Season Review and Final Preview

  • lolhart

    I’ve only dipped into X-Factor USA this year, as from a viewer perspective I’ve found it the most unwatchable of the three seasons. I completely agree with you about the constant bickering and Simon referring to the other judges as “witches” etc is tiresome. Whoever thought it was a good idea to hire Paulina as a judge should be fired. I’m genuinely surprised the show might get renewed as it’s been an even bigger mess than the previous years.

    I’m baffled that Carlito has got as far as he has. The Latin America community have never seemed to get behind contestants on these shows in the same way UK demos do. I was less suprised about Jeff making it top 3. Tate Stevens won last year in a very teen orientated series and countless seasons of Idol have proved how much American audiences love a white guy with a guitar.

    I think it’s fair to say Alex and Sierra have it in the bag. I’m sceptical about their future commercial prospects. To me they’re the classic example of an act who people follow when the show is running because they buy into their journey. They just seem like a nice young couple, but I don’t see or hear the next big thing.

    • Nissl

      Yep, I’d agree with all of that. Regarding the commercial potential of A&S, at this point I’d be skeptical of the prospects of any reality show winner in the US. A number of acts in the last ~7 years have managed debuts that appeared in the top 10 of the Billboard album chart for a week, but only one or two have gone any further than that. I have found that I want to replay A&S’s breakthrough performances several times, which is not true for me with any previous XFUSA act, nor any of the UK acts from the last two years. That’s a good start. But then I have a thing for groups, it seems.

  • Curtis

    Well this post makes the problems X Factor UK has been having seem relatively minor in comparison! XFUK has been on the down for sure, but even though it’s at it’s lowest point in quality in perhaps 6 series this season has been perfectly watchable.

  • Lia

    I agree with everything you said. It’s all there.
    I jumped on the A&S bandwagon a few weeks ago, more precisely the snafu week, when their save me song was “Give me Love” and without Simon’s interference they just delivered. I always liked their style and actually listen to (and buy) their type of music. But I thought they’d be swallowed by the show or be sacrificed to help Restless Road.
    Sierra’s journey has been great to follow. People who remember the awkward, shy girl from the auditions are quite amazed by the transformation. Her voice kind of melts me and Alex’s voice complements the magic.
    I have watched their performances of “Say my Name”, “Say Something” and “Gravity” over and over again and I love them more each time.
    All bloggers and recappers who had been calling for XF USA to be cancelled have been saying A&S saved it and they wouldn’t mind having another season, including Michael Slezak from TVLine, who was probably one of the harshest critics.
    I have certainly been more invested in them than I have in any show for the past couple of years (last was Little Mix).

    Thank you for the article!

  • lolhart

    I think the problem the show has is despite Alex and Sierra proving popular and doing very well on the iTunes Charts, it hasn’t translated into an increase in ratings. That’s all Fox will be considering when deciding whether to renew or not. There are also other problems like the judges’ bickering which have been present since Season 1.

  • Nissl

    Interesting to see what they did tonight for the final. I thought Jeff got pretty unhelpful production. First song saw him going way up on a plinth and separated from the crowd by smoky lasers. It was actually pretty cool visually, but then he got comments for being inaudible. The “favorite” song they gave him was Creep, standing on a box, with messy lighting. Pretty darn unhelpful.

    Carlito was on first again and had a lot of red and sexy dancers but that hasn’t really hurt him before, might actually work well for his market. I’m guessing they’re relaxed about his share of the vote and figure he’s out of range.

    I was surprised A&S didn’t have *any* stage support for “Say Something,” I thought it looked better with candles. Their celeb duet didn’t work very well either, I thought – Leona really didn’t mesh well vocally. The other two duets were fine and brought to mind Nick’s final duet. I’d never heard of either of their celebs, though (although I do remember the Goo Goo Dolls… from two decades ago.)

    @Lia: LM and A&S, good taste!

  • Guildo Horn Forever

    ‘The “favorite” song they gave him was Creep, standing on a box…Pretty darn unhelpful’

    It wasn’t a duet with Wagner, by any chance?!

  • Nissl

    We’ll never get numbers for this show, unfortunately, but A&S won every week according to a post-show Simon interview I saw on the DS forums.

  • A&S were the feel-good story of the show: a lovey dovey couple that can actually sell in the real world. UK media would have bashed them for copying The Voice’s Melanie Martinez’s audition, though…

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