May 21, 2013 at 11:08 AM ET
For the second year in a row, Simon Cowell found himself needing to replace two of the four judges on “The X Factor.” And when the announcement finally came on Monday that Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio would take the spots L.A. Reid and Britney Spears left behind on the panel, the world reacted with a resounding “Huh?”
Neither star brings the buzz that most were expecting from the new hires. Kelly is best known for being in Destiny’s Child, while Paulina is a big name in Latin music and a “who’s she?” everywhere else. These are really the women that Simon is turning to as he attempts to save “X Factor” from premature cancellation? The “Beauties and the Brit” slogan sounds like a great sitcom, but not a reality singing competition.
“Paulina and Kelly both have great taste and massive experience in the music industry and together with Demi, this is going to be a fun panel. It just feels like the time to do something different,” Simon said in the statement announcing the new hires.
“Time to do something different” indeed. “The X Factor” joined the Fox schedule with high hopes and massive hype two years ago, and to the glee of Simon-haters across the world, that faded quicker than one of his t-shirts after being tossed in the dryer too many times. Since the early days of the American version of the British hit, when he was forced to replace Cheryl Cole and move Nicole Scherzinger from host to judge, nothing has gone right in Simon's effort to replicate the success he enjoyed with “Idol.” It’s tough to see how these new additions will change anything.
Betting against big names
On the one hand, you can’t fault Simon for going away from the TMZ crowd. He spent a lot of cash last year on Britney and Demi Lovato, and viewers stayed away. “American Idol” brought in Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj and still saw its ratings drop and the show get duller. So getting big, controversial celebrities isn't always the best idea.
But bringing in prominent names generates attention, and “X Factor” desperately needs that. Always in the shadow of “American Idol,” it’s far behind “The Voice” and less fun than “America’s Got Talent.” A decade ago people would turn on the TV just to watch Simon insult people, but that’s not true anymore. A five million dollar prize is gargantuan compared to “Idol,” but no Powerball drawing.
Nor have its winners jumped to the top of the charts. Season one winner Melanie Amaro’s debut album still hasn’t been released. Tate Stevens, who won last season’s competition, hasn’t caught fire either. Without having produced a superstar, and without any prominent or controversial new faces on the panel, there isn’t any obvious reason for people to watch.
Better be good
Unless, that is, Kelly and Paulina are both really combative and entertaining as part of a panel. Simon’s placing a big bet that they are.
The two already know what it takes to judge a reality TV show. Kelly was a judge on the UK version of “X Factor” in 2011, with her top act finishing in third place. Paulina has been a judge on “La Voz Mexico” -- that country’s version of “The Voice,” and will also be a coach on “La Voz Kids.” She, at least, appears ready to fill a role as the fiery contrast to Simon’s Britishness, saying in her statement “Simon, be careful what you wish for, let's see if you are ready to handle me, empieza la fiesta, amigo!”
That combativeness is what the show is going to need to succeed. If “X Factor” is just another singing show with panelists saying nothing but nice things about the contestants and only gently teasing each other, there’s nothing to set it apart from the pack. The Kelly-Paulina-Demi trio has a lot of pressure on it to be fighters, both with each other and Simon, to get people talking about the show again. Odds are close to 100% that we’ll see that kind of sniping in the promotional material for the show once those initial commercials start to air.
“The X Factor's” a huge show in the United Kingdom, and American pop music fans can thank it for introducing the world to One Direction and Leona Lewis. But until it produces a singer of notice on the U.S. version of the show, Kelly and Paulina are going to have to provide an unexpected spark if the show hopes to avoid sinking further than the typical contestant’s career.