Britain's X Factor revives talent show fortunes

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The Independent Online

Superstars like Elton John and Sting may pour scorn, but TV talent shows have long kept viewers happy -- and Britain's "The X Factor" has just proved their enduring appeal with a record-breaking show.

(AFP) -

Superstars like Elton John and Sting may pour scorn, but TV talent shows have long kept viewers happy - and Britain's "The X Factor" has just proved their enduring appeal with a record-breaking show.

The programme, the format of which has been sold around the world, is also making a mint for its svengali-like founder.

A record 19.1 million people watched 18-year-old Joe McElderry achieve his dream Sunday in the British singing competition which, along with "American Idol", has helped transform the struggling television and music industries.

Viewers love the rollercoaster of emotions played out on TV as ordinary people try their shot at stardom, and then buy the music produced by their favourite contestant - a combination that makes commercial dynamite.

British media mogul Simon Cowell is among the biggest winners of the genre, having created and judged "The X Factor" and its sister show "Britain's Got Talent", which have now been replicated in 17 and 27 countries respectively.

He is also credited with making "American Idol" the top US TV show - and himself a major star - with his blunt put-downs to hopeless contestants as a judge. The Idol format now appears in more than 50 countries.

While he does not own the rights to the shows, Cowell's combined salaries have earned him a fortune worth more than 120 million pounds (195 million dollars, 133 million euros), according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

"If you were to ask me who the real X Factor superstar is - the most enduring, unforgettable personality of the show's entire series - I've have no hesitation in telling you. It's Simon Cowell," said Pete Waterman, who was a judge with Cowell on Britain's now defunct "Pop Idol" in 2001 and 2003.

Despite their commercial success, Waterman is dismissive of such TV shows, writing in the Daily Mail newspaper last week that "The X Factor" was a "freak show" that was great entertainment but nothing to do with real talent.

"The X Factor is yet another vehicle for the talentless to milk their 15 minutes of fame - and it encourages far too many youngsters to believe that 'talentless fame' is the only career to aspire to," the music producer wrote.

The show stars' habit of dominating the music charts rankles with many in the industry, who condemn the producers for shoehorning contestants into stereotypical roles and songs which they say squeeze out original talent.

Last month, singer-songwriter Sting dismissed the show as "televised karaoke", telling London's Evening Standard newspaper that it was "a soap opera that has nothing to do with music - in fact, it has put music back decades".

Elton John has also said it is "no way to find talent" and was reported to have said he would rather have his "cock bitten off by an Alsatian" than watch the show - despite later appearing on the same bill as an "X Factor" winner.

However, advocates of the show point to the stars that have emerged from the talent show format, including 2006 "X Factor" winner Leona Lewis, whose debut single smashed world records by selling 50,000 copies in the first half hour.

And who could forget Susan Boyle, the once-frumpy Scottish woman who caused a global storm when her audition on "Britain's Got Talent" was posted on YouTube and whose debut album "I Dreamed A Dream" shot to the US number one.

Cowell admits he is not cool and his music tastes are not exciting - he hated punk and house music and considers that music peaked in 1959 with Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife", according to a recent interview with GQ magazine.

He has also made mistakes, including telling actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, a contestant on "American Idol" in 2004, that she was "out of her depth" in the show. She went on to win an Oscar and a Grammy award.

However, Cowell told GQ that his job, quite simply, was to "guess what's going to be popular" - and if the hype surrounding the latest "X Factor" winner is anything to go by, he has done it again this year.

McElderry is tipped to take the Christmas number one - as long as he is not thwarted by a spoiler campaign that wants to get Rage Against the Machine's expletive-laden "Killing in the Name" single to the top spot instead.