Industry expects X Factor to remain unscathed by Cole departure

Cheryl Cole's refusal to return to the UK 'X Factor' judging panel smacks of yet another PR stunt to boost the show's tabloid exposure, according to leading media agency executives, but will not affect the show's performance in the ratings when it returns to our screens in August.

Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell: X Factor UK judges exit the show
Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell: X Factor UK judges exit the show

Auditions for 'The X Factor' start next week, but will not include Cole, who has refused a move back to the UK panel after her sudden exit from the new US version of the show last week, following reports that suggested TV executives thought her accent would be too strong for the American audience.

Her refusal to take a place back on the judging panel is bound to cause some anxiety at ITV, with Louis Walsh now the only remaining judge from the last series to return to one of the broadcaster’s biggest cash cows.

Fellow judge Dannii Minogue will also not be part of the next series of 'The X Factor', due to a clash with the filming of 'Australia's Got Talent'. This is despite her success with winning act Matt Cardle in last year's series.

With Simon Cowell and the UK’s "sweetheart" Cole out of the picture for the next series, and now that Gary Barlow, the talented but critics might suggest not the most charismatic member of "man band" Take That, Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child who is not as instantly recognisable as bandmate Beyonce, and a relative newcomer in the industry, N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos, make up the new panel, questions have been asked about whether the programme will see its audience drop.

Chris Locke, group trading director at StarcomMediaVest Group, suspects that this is just the latest PR stunt for a programme that thrives on tabloid headlines. He said: "I'm hugely suspicious of whether she was really on the US panel. It all looks like a PR stunt, part of strategic PR plan to raise the profile of the US 'X Factor'."

However, he is quick to point out that he doesn't think that Cole's exclusion from the programme will hurt its popularity as much has been touted, and that the audience will be more interested in Cowell’s expected return for the judge’s houses section of the new series.

Locke said: "I don't think it really matters if she does return to the UK panel – they've got Gary Barlow who is a good choice. Cheryl has lost popularity anyway. People will be more interested in when Cowell arrives."

This will not be the first time that Cowell has had to face a slide in ratings for one of his primetime ITV hit shows.

When the judging panel on 'Britain’s Got Talent' was refreshed this year to include former 'Baywatch' star David Hasselhoff and comedian Michael McIntyre, the first show averaged 9.95 million viewers compared with last year's 10.6 million – not a significant drop, in the grand scheme of things, but a worrying sign in a world when audiences are being fuelled by addiction to social media, tweeting or updating Facebook.

According to reports, Cole refused to return to the UK show after being dropped from the US version in favour of Pussycat Doll Nicole Sherzinger, and added to ITV's problems by demanding an extra £1m, with her proposed wage demand to return pegged at £2.5m.

Manveer Lall, TV buyer at Initiative, said: "'The X Factor' is a strong brand. People come and go, but if the recent American 'Idol' series is anything to go by, the refreshing of a panel can often have a positive impact. We believe that 'The X Factor' will continue to deliver the same or similar viewing figures to last year, and will deliver the same audience profile and the same overall coverage."

As last year's final made up to £250,000 from each 30-second spot placed by advertisers, the defection of Cowell to the US 'X Factor' and the exclusion of Cole, will only be felt when the first show of the series airs in August, and is sure to be watched with interest by media agencies and clients alike.

Keith Welling, broadcast account director at UM London, is slightly more sanguine in his response. He said: "'The X Factor' has been a ratings juggernaut from day one. However, maintaining its momentum this year will be a challenge.

"People tune in for Cowell as much as the guests, and so the loss of him will be felt. Cheryl less so, but she’s also important."

Until that point, the fevered headlines of the tabloids, the crowds outside the auditions, and the proliferation of comments across Twitter and Facebook is all we will have to gauge the level of 'X Factor' mania.

Chris Allen, head of vision at MPG Media Contacts, says that the PR for the programme in newspapers and across the web, whether on gossip sites or increasingly through Twitter, is incredibly important to the show in the coming weeks.

He said: "I doubt if the exclusion of Cheryl Cole from 'The X Factor' is going to fundamentally affect audiences for the show.

"Last year, 'The X Factor' attracted its highest-ever audiences, and it became even more of a social occasion. This has been driven by technology – eg Twitter and Facebook – which has brought the ability to debate the show in real time with a virtual circle of friends. This is only set to continue.

"One school of thought is that this is all about PR for the show. If you remember, in 2007, they axed Louis Walsh and brought him back."

Whether the shine comes off the undoubted coruscation of 'The X Factor' brand with the departure of one of its largest draws and the defection to the US by its creator, the fact still remains that this is a programme about the people, watched by the people, and that level of involvement is something that is often overlooked.

Concentrating on the star rating of the judges and whether they stay or leave, may not be the way we measure the success of 'The X Factor' in the future.

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