Sunday, May 22, 2011

A look at "The X Factor" Chicago auditions (Updated)

(Updated 2 June 2011 to include comments on the dismissal of show judge Cheryl Cole). I attended a taping of auditions for "The X Factor" last Thursday at the Sears Centre Arena, located in Hoffman Estates, IL, just outside Chicago. The auditions were for the U.S. version of "The X Factor", which will premiere on Fox in September. I won't give any spoilers; instead, I'll focus on some of the technical and production aspects of the show.

The Sears Centre Arena is one of several sports and concert arenas in the Chicago area, and it was well-suited for the taping. The producers effectively cut the arena in half with a floor-to-ceiling cloth partition that formed the backdrop for the performance stage. The arena was made to look and sound like a concert, with the usual lighting, speakers and amps, albeit with lower sound levels. According to Simon Cowell, there were more than 3,000 people watching the taping.

The producers used seven cameras in the arena. Two were positioned in the audience and equipped with long zoom lenses for covering the performers. Three were positioned stage left for shooting the four judges (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Cheryl Cole and L.A. Reid). A crane-mounted camera was used for overhead shots of performers, the judges and audience, and a seventh camera was used for audience reaction shots. Additional cameras (not visible from the arena) were used backstage for interviews with show hosts Nicole Scherzinger and Steve Jones, the performers and their families. There were two multiviewers positioned stage left to show the outputs of the various cameras on a single screen, but it appeared that they were being used by producers, not the show's director.

Prior to the start of taping, production teams shot interviews and raw footage of some of the performers and their families outside the arena. The editors on the show are going to have a lot of work, simply due to the volume of footage produced by all those cameras in the course of a 3 1/2 hour taping. (Keep in mind that this was only one of four tapings scheduled for Chicago. Multiple tapings were held earlier in the month in Los Angeles, and four more tapings will be done in June in each of four locations: New Jersey, Miami, Dallas and Seattle.)

From the taping that I saw, it's not clear how much "The X Factor" differs from the format of "American Idol" (I haven't seen the U.K. version of the show). As mentioned above, there are four judges, and three of them have to say "yes" in order for an individual singer or group to pass through to the next round in Los Angeles. Given the number of individuals and groups that went through from the taping I attended, there are going to be many performers going to L.A. by the time the auditions end next month.

Since I originally wrote this post, judge Cheryl Cole has been dropped from "The X Factor". There's been no official statement from either the show's producers or the Fox network as to why she's been dropped, but there are a number of rumors:  Her Geordie dialect might be too difficult for U.S. audiences to understand, her weight, and a lack of chemistry with the other judges. I had no trouble whatsoever understanding her, and although I was in the "cheap seats", I couldn't see anything that would indicate that she has a weight problem. However, I and other people sitting around me commented on a lack of chemistry.

Simon and Paula came out and immediately continued where they had left off on "American Idol". Their playful (and sometimes not so playful) friction was exactly what the audience expected. Early in the taping, it seems like there were two panels--Simon and Paula, and Cheryl and L.A. Reid. As the night went on, L.A. Reid synced up with Simon and Paula, and his personality started to come alive, but Cheryl seemed to be left out.

Fox executives probably got a chance to see rough edits of the footage from the four Chicago tapings, and saw the same thing that we saw in the audience. The vast majority of the U.S. audience neither knows nor cares who Cheryl Cole is--I'm not saying that as an insult, it's simply reality--and host Steve Jones pointed out that no one in the audience in Chicago probably knew who he was. "The X Factor" is too important to Fox and its producers for them to take any chance with the show's popularity. In addition, they had a short break before taping 16 more auditions in four more cities throughout the month of June. If they were to make any on-screen personnel changes, they needed to make them quickly, before the June tapings began.

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