Fox quietly paid to fly one promotion exec from each of its affiliates to Los Angeles earlier this week for an X-Factor confab that featured an appearance by Simon Cowell. The network usually holds an annual affiliates promo conference later in the year (called FPEC: Fox Promotion Executive Conference), but this was a new and separate event that it dubbed "XPEC."
The network obviously sees its affiliates as crucial partners in turning next fall's highly-anticipated import into an American Idol-level smash. And if the shindig in Los Angeles Feb 28-March 1 was any indication, the affiliates are just as excited for the new show as the network is. Fox shelled out the bucks for airfare and hotels rooms for a promotions employee at each Fox station around the country to attend, and about 145 affiliates were represented and more than 200 people attended in all.
"This kind of promotion based around a single show is unprecedented," said a veteran promo exec at a West Coast Fox affiliate who asked to not be named. "I've been affiliated with Fox a long time, and I've never seen them doing anything like this."
Speakers at the Ritz-Carlton Marina Del Rey confab included senior network execs Peter Rice and Joe Earley, as well as the executive producers from both the U.K. and the U.S. versions of X Factor, and of course Cowell himself, prompting a standing ovation from the affiliates as the tart-tongued talent evaluator sat for a Q&A with Earley.
Promotional clips shown in L.A. featured Usher, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Rihanna, though it was licensed footage, and not a suggestion the top-shelf celebs will be on the show. (Outside of Cowell, the judges have not been named, though Cowell told Access Hollywood his short list includes Mariah Carey, George Michael, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger).
Attendees say the producers appear to be sparing no expense to make the production values for the performances akin to, as one promotions professional termed it, Grammys-level quality: top-flight backup dancers, lavish sets, pyrotechnics, laser shows.
"You had hundreds of people there who can be pretty jaded," said the station staffer. "But we saw the clips and said, ‘Bring it on!'"
Fox is so intent on filling the audition pipeline with the best and brightest singers in a given market that it's giving each affiliate four front of the line passes to bestow upon winners of local station talent competitions, as well as up to $3,000 per station to put toward local talent's travel expenses. "Fox has put their money where their mouth is," says Angela Riley, promotions director at KLSR Eugene. "That's pretty significant for 210 affiliates."
Many on the affiliate side believe the ultra-competitive Cowell, seeing Idol continue to thrive in the wake of his departure, will be doubly focused on making X Factor a grand slam. Tim McVay, vice president and general manager of the Bay Area's KTVU, was pleased to receive a note from his promotions person after the X Factor presentation that read something to the effect of, "This thing's gonna be something else."
"He was really impressed-he was pumped," says McVay. "I hear X Factor has been a blowtorch of a success in the U.K., and I think it's going to be fantastic here."
As for the show itself, there will be four categories for contestants: Boys, Girls, Uppers (those above an as yet undecided age, perhaps 25), and Groups. Once the final 24 contestants have made the cut, each of the four judges will coach one of the four categories of six singers. Each team will reportedly live in the judge's house, and undergo close-up mentoring known as "Bootcamp."
The X Factor auditions kick off March 27 in Los Angeles, followed by Miami (4/7), Newark (4/14), Seattle (4/20), Chicago (4/27) and Dallas (TBA). The X Factor age minimum is 12-compared to American Idol's 15.
The close partnership between Fox and its affiliates in building a potential smash hit comes at a time when numerous affiliates are fretting over the network's demands regarding their retransmission consent earnings. Last month, the ugly battle between the Fox affiliates board and the network over these payments went public when barbed missives from both parties were leaked to the media before Fox's Mike Hopkins sat down for an interview with B&C.
A Fox rep declined to comment for this story.