Open Mic

Won't Get Fooled Again. Simon Cowell Is Not Quite the Truth Teller We Thought He Was -- He's Got More P.T. Barnum in Him Than One Might Have Suspected. What Cowell Left Out of Last Week's 'X Factor'

Chuck Ross Posted September 19, 2012 at 8:40 AM

As “The X Factor” begins the second week of its second season tonight, Sept. 19, 2012, one hopes that the show will become more transparent.

Yes, I realize that almost all “reality” shows involve a certain amount of audience manipulation, but last week it seems to me Simon Cowell and his “X Factor” crossed a line.

The show ended last week with a performance by 13-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar that wowed just about everyone -- the show’s judges, the live audience in Providence, R.I., where the audition performance took place, and most of us watching at home.

On “The X Factor” we first met Carly backstage, sitting with her parents. Addressing the camera, she says: “Hi. My name is Carly Rose Sonenclar. I’m 13 years old. I’m from Westchester, New York. I love music. I just sing from my heart."

As Sonenclar is saying this, superimposed on the screen we see the words: “Carly Rose Sonenclar, 13, Student.”

Sonenclar continues, saying, “My parents are extremely supportive.” Then she says what her mom does for a living, and what her dad does. She adds, “I want to be a superstar.”

Then Sonenclar’s mom tells us, “If she gets four 'yes' [votes], I’ll be the proudest mom in the world.” Then she looks at her daughter and adds, “But I already am.”

Sonenclar’s dad then says to Carly, “Now all you have to do is sing before a few thousand people.”

A discussion about nervousness ensues, with Carly concluding that some nervousness is OK.

Carly goes on stage and announces that she’s going to sing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Simon and L.A. Reid are clearly skeptical about this song choice from someone so young.

Carly belts out the song, hitting a home run. The judges give her a standing ovation. Judge Britney Spears says, with amazement, “I wasn’t expecting that.” Judge Demi Lovato, equally impressed, says “You’re really confident. It’s effortless for you, which blows my mind because you’re only 13.”

And that’s exactly what most of us watching at home are also thinking. (By the way, you can watch all of this on video if you click here.)

However, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me ask you this. Suppose our backstage introduction had gone more like this:

“Hi. I’m Carly Rose Sonenclar and I’m 13. I started singing at the age of two. I made my singing debut on Broadway when I was seven in the revival of the hit musical ‘Les Miserables.” I played the part of Young Cosette and was the understudy for Gavroche. I was in the show for more than a year. Then from 2009 through 2010, I was in the national tour of ‘Little House on the Prairie, the Musical.' I originated the principal role of Carrie in that show. Last year, I was back on Broadway in a new musical called 'Wonderland,' where I originated the part of Chloe, again one of the principal roles. Unfortunately, the show only lasted a month. However, I got great notices from the New York critics, including one that said I sang better than some of the adults in the show. Let’s see. Oh yeah. I’m also currently in 'The Electric Company' on PBS, where I love acting and singing the part of Gilda Flip.”

Just before she was about to sing “Feeling Good” on “The X Factor," judge L.A. Reid asked Carly whether she had rehearsed the song. She answered yes. Period. What Carly could have said is, “Not only have I rehearsed it, I performed it about 18 months ago at the world renown Birdland Jazz Club in New York.” (And you can watch that performance if you click here.)

Methinks that if all of these facts -- which are true and can be easily found on the Internet -- had come out before she sang her number on “The X Factor,” the reaction to her breathtaking performance would have been quite different.

With the expectations now realistic, the audience reaction might have been more subdued. Certainly Britney and Demi would not have said what they said after she performed, since they would have expected her to be both poised and a very good singer.

But Cowell, who is more than just a judge on “The X Factor” -- he created the show -- is not interested in realistic expectations. He’s interested in creating memorable TV moments. And if he can make that happen by leaving out a factoid -- or two or three -- what’s the harm in that? It certainly worked for P.T. Barnum.

The problem is that eventually, as the audience realizes how manipulative you are, they begin not to trust you. And that’s not good.

For example, my wife, who, like most of us, had been blown away by Sonenclar on last week’s "X Factor," after hearing the real story of the girl, said, “I feel somewhat betrayed. I was going to root for her this season, but now that I know the real story, I think I’ll root for that single mom who’s struggling to raise her kid while trying to make it.”

My feeling is that reality shows can be successful and be somewhat real at the same time. For example, watching some of “The Voice” this season I’ve noticed that they seem to be more forthcoming in telling the TV audience what professional experience their contestants have before they sing.

As Simon has discovered with the ratings for “The X-Factor” falling beneath his expectations, audiences can be fickle. Simon needs to be less manipulative. We need him to be that truth teller we fell in love/hate with when we first saw him on “American Idol.”