Simon Cowell is back on American TV. The infamous, cranky Brit who brought U.S. audiences the most popular television program of the past decade, "American Idol," has returned to the airwaves with his British TV brainchild, "The X Factor."
The new singing competition created a whole host of expectations this summer and so far has failed to deliver the ratings to match. What it is delivering is higher stakes, more diversity of talent and a seemingly endless amount of sob stories. The show's format, which pits singers and judges against each other far more aggressively than "American Idol," also promises a lot more manipulated drama and on-camera fights, both staged and real.
In short, it promises to be yet another reality show full of contrived drama and heavily edited storylines. For someone like me, this is truly wonderful news.
Lest readers of this column think I only enjoy watching guilty pleasure narrative shows like "Revenge," don't worry - guilty pleasure reality shows are just as near and dear to my heart, and I'm sure a few of you love them, too. The shows can be prestigious, like "Intervention" or "Project Runway," or trashy, like "Big Brother" and the "Real Housewives" series. Each has its own merits and each manages to invest its audience without the tools of writing or controllable characterization.
How do reality TV shows still entrance viewers? Why, with the magic of editing, of course! After all, the most commonly uttered phrase by reality TV participants after their show has aired is, without a doubt, "I was edited to look that way." To which any good reality TV producer would then respond, "Yeah, and what's your point?"
When an individual signs up for a reality TV show, they are, in essence, selling their souls for the entire period of production. Anything said on-camera is fair game for editing. It is not the responsibility of a TV producer to recreate your true persona as your character. If all reality TV producers did that, the genre would have become extinct shortly after conception.
Reality TV provides an interesting challenge to an editor, one that can't really be found in narrative form: how do you craft fascinating characters with nothing but statements made on-camera and a smattering of dramatic music? When you find a show that manages to create rich characters, that's when you know you've struck a gold mine.
What reality diehard wouldn't remember the table-flipping incident from the first season of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," or the volcanic argument that erupted between the finalists during the first season of "Project Runway"? What person with a heart didn't feel it warm when Kelly Clarkson won "American Idol"? These are seminal moments not only in the history of reality TV, but also in the history of TV altogether.
Of course, all these fantastic moments also happened in the first seasons of the programs' long runs. Perhaps that's the key, and why such beloved reality programs like "Jersey Shore" and "The Real Housewives of New York" saw their ratings stall in their most recent seasons - the key is to catch a great show early, when it hasn't quite figured out how popular it is and is completely focused on amping up the drama and creating indelible characters.
So far, "The X Factor" has failed to impress critics or audiences to too high a degree, but I have hope. Despite its pedigree with a producer like Cowell and an extensive developmental history, it is, at the end of the day, a reality show in its first season in the U.S. If all involved would stop worrying about "The X Factor" attempting to live up to its international legacy and focused on creating great characters and an intense sense of drama, it could reach that level of guilty pleasure enjoyment that great reality TV does better than any other genre.
For now, I'm going to keep a casual eye on "The X Factor" while I enjoy other shows. When the mud starts slinging, the rumors start flying and judge Paula Abdul flips a table, let me know. I'll be the first in front of the TV set to enjoy every moment of it.
This is the opinion of Kevin O'Keeffe, a sophomore screenwriting major from Austin, Texas. Please send comments to email@example.com.