Does America really need 'X-Factor'? In two words, 'heck yes.'

'The X-Factor,' another singing reality competition, debuts Wednesday. At what point will the US public hit singing TV saturation? Not yet, suggest experts and critics.

By , Staff writer

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    Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, judges on "The X Factor," pose together at a world premiere screening event for the new television series last week. The competition series gives viewers the opportunity to choose the next breakout music star or group.
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"The X Factor" debuts on Fox tonight and America is asking the burning question: Do we really need another singing competition show?

Before we answer, here is some relevant background.

So, what is the possibility that "The X Factor" could finally tip America into singing oversaturation?

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After all, since premiering in June 2002, "American Idol" has broken records set by “The Cosby Show” and “All in the Family” for consecutive weeks as America’s No. 1 TV show. Several singing competitions have followed, such as “The Voice” and “The Singoff,” not to mention talent shows such as “America’s Got Talent,” which are routinely won by singers. Then, there has also been the success of “Glee,” which has turned around decades of prejudice against musical nerds and made singing cool.

Still, TV industry analysts suggest, there remains plenty of room for "The X Factor." Whether it is the public's deep-seated love with reality shows and competitions or the desire to see how Simon Cowell's new show stacks up against "Idol," there are ample reasons to watch. And the early buzz suggests it is a slickly produced piece of "popcorn TV."

“The general assumption that there are too many of these shows and that oversaturation is going to stale the audiences is a fully erroneous assumption,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The issue is not the content, but the quality of the show.”

For one, says Fordham University professor of communication Paul Levinson, “There is no such thing as too much music in our lives or on our TV screens. Not only will 'X-Factor' not be too much music for us, it will not even begin to sate our enjoyment of music in all its forms on television."

But the reasons go well beyond US audience’s apparently bottomless appetite for music. Reality shows have succeeded by tapping into a deeper emotion – envy – says Ben Agger, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Amateurs like you and me, want to be stars, even celebrities.... But the culture industry, including the music business, ensures that access to celebrity status and stardom is restricted to those with a track record, an agent, the right contacts," he says by e-mail. "And so these TV shows suggest that the occasional Kelly Clarkson can attain celebrity without enduring the typical gatekeeping of the cultural mandarins who run music, films, television.”

Moreover, reality shows offer the obvious attractions of voyeurism – even in competitions like "Idol" and "X-Factor."

“We watch because the shows are a train wreck, as most amateur performers crash and burn in front of an audience of millions,” adds Professor Agger.

And they offer overt rivalries: between contestants, between judges, and between different talent shows.

“There is an endless series of things to keep up with about this X Factor show,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, professor of communication at Villanova University. “Will it do as well as Simon Cowell’s 'American Idol'? Will it do as well as the British version?”

She and others say people are also fascinated by the behind-the-scenes dramas of whether judge Paula Abdul and Mr. Cowell will get along, as well as the lawsuit against Cowell over his right to take a version to the US.

What are the insider assessments of whether "X Factor" can be a hit?

In her blog, Lyndsey Parker, managing editor of Yahoo! Music, discussed a preview performance last week in Hollywood.

“The question on the minds of everyone in the cinema, including myself, was: Was it all worth it, Simon? In a word, 'yes,' In two words, 'heck yes.' This was real popcorn TV, people.”

There are some differences in format with the new show, but Cowell is playing his cards close to his vest, saying only, "You'll have to watch." Prize money has been set at $5 million, more than any other show.

“I think the main reason people will tune in is because America loves talent competitions. It is yet to be seen if this difference with audience participation will be enough to set this show apart,” says vocal coach Lisa Damiani, a former "Star Search" champion and CEO of recently-launched Star Rock for Kids, which produces sing-along CDs for children.

Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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