I'm really intrigued by the Four-Chair Challenge, which starts on "The X Factor" this week.
 
Given the amount of skepticism I've been known to heap upon the FOX singing competition, that could perhaps cause you optimism as well. 
 
Thus far, "X Factor" and FOX promotions haven't done a great job of explaining this structural evolution for the Wednesday/Thursday show, which may explain why Simon Cowell and the network hosted a small group of reporters on Monday (September 30) afternoon to try teasing the Four-Chair Challenge.
 
Let me try to explain it a bit better than the teasers have done: Currently, all four judges/mentors have 10 remaining contestants in their respective categories. Starting on Wednesday, the process begins to winnow down to four per category. On the stage, there will be four seats or "chairs," if you will. One by one, the singers in each category will perform and their respective coach/mentor/judge will have to decide whether or not to give one of the chairs to a singer. For a while, it's pretty low-key. Yes or No. Easy peasy. But once all four chairs are filled, things get fun. As the four contestants sit in their chairs, briefly feeling comfortable with their positions, they have to watch as another contestant performs just feet away and their coach then has to give the "Yes" or "No" votes. If it's a "Yes," they have to execute a Switch, booting one of the singers from their chairs. It's like musical chairs or a Yankee Swap, only with young people sensing their dreams are about to get shattered instead of prettily wrapped presents.
 
Cowell explains that the Four-Chair Challenge was transplanted from "X Factor: Holland" and while he acknowledged that it's "possibly the worst title in the world," the results have the potential to be wonderfully sadistic and also entertaining. There's pressure on the performers in the spotlight. There's pressure on the judges. There's pressure on the squirming contestants in the "Yes" chairs, who are experiencing a really unpleasant roller-coaster. And this is all happening in front of a loud and vocal audience trying to sway the contestants and also (with some success) the judges. And it's an audience that includes the parents and family members of the contestants, loved ones with the potential to take heartbreak with even less grace than the singers themselves. Throw in pauses more pregnant than Catherine Zeta-Jones at the 2003 Oscars and you get a recipe to add suspense where none existed previously.
 
Indeed, the biggest thing working in favor of the Four-Chair Challenge is that it isn't really replacing anything of value. These next few episodes are taking the place of those forgettable installments in which the judges and a hand-picked celebrity friend sat in or around houses that may or may not have actually been theirs and listened to the singers perform in environments with dreadful acoustics and then made arbitrary decisions that featured little drama at all. Even if the entirety of the Four-Chair Challenge fails to live up to the 20 minutes I saw last night, it will still be an improvement over Judges' Houses.
 
After the presentation, I was able to grab a few minutes with Simon Cowell and also with Demi Lovato to discuss the Four-Chair Challenge and also to talk about the show's ratings, the inevitable One Direction appearance and more.
 
It turns out that my initial read that the Four-Chair Challenge could be sadistic, which I meant as a positive, has been used as a criticism across the pond, where the UK "X Factor" used a six-seat version earlier this year. So when I asked Cowell how heated the drama got, he immediately referred to the controversy.
 
"Unbelievable. We'd never done it before, so we weren't sure what it was going to be like. Look, it has provoked an extreme reaction in the U.K. I'm not gonna lie, but however you cut people, people complain," he says "We felt with this, less people had to compete, which was fairer. But this is the way I guess competitions work: You've gotta field your strongest contestant."
 
Most of the concerns with the British take have involved the potential of meanness to contestants, but in the clip we saw, it was judge Paulina Rubio who was under the most stress.
 
"It's definitely a lot of drama," Lovato agrees. "The anxiety is crazy. I think we were all having anxiety attacks."
 
Whereas the Judges' Home round took place in opulent isolation, with the contestants often singing to no more than three or four people standing on a seaside cliff or an costly Manhattan loft, the Four-Chair Challenge is in front of a packed crowd and just because they didn't know what was coming didn't keep them from catching on. When I asked Cowell if the crowd became like a fifth judge, he disagreed and said that they were the first judge.
 
"We told the audience at exactly the same time as the contestants what was going to happen. The contestants didn't know until the day. The audience felt, I think, empowered, involved and when they didn't get their own way, they went nuts," he says.
 
And no, it's not an accident that the four chairs themselves are as low-key as possible, just simple and uncomfortable-looking white seats, not festooned with padding or lights and not prone to spinning, like on some other shows.
 
"Well, for obvious reasons, we kept the chairs as basic as possible," Cowell smiles. "It was the premise more than the look of the chair."
 
Regarding the possibility that people associated with a certain recent Emmy winning series might quibble about the originality, Cowell notes, "It was the Dutch show that did it and it worked very well for them and I thought we ought to do it here. As you say, I see elements of our shows in other shows. No one can complain about it."
 
More on Page 2, including Cowell's thoughts on the show's ratings and a little tease about a One Direction performance.
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