The most buzzed about piece of stunt casting in modern television history has ended, more with a whimper than a bang. BuzzFeed has learned that Britney Spears will not be returning to the X Factor judges' panel when the show returns to the Fox airwaves for its third season this September. Whether it was Spears herself or the show who decided to make the break is unclear at this hour. A source close to the show confirmed that a decision had been made not to ask the singer to return to the show. Earlier reports stated that Spears had decided to quit the show. But it appears likely that Spears camp saw producers turning against her and took the leap, seeing a jump-or-be-pushed situation. (Representatives for Spears did not immediately return requests for comment.)
Of the discussions currently unfolding, a source close to the X Factor production said "The producers have an idea of who they want for this year's panel which they discussed over the holidays, and they know who they want in her place. Britney hasn't been part of those plans for this season but that's not really coming as a surprise to anyone. She did her best last year, but it was time to part ways. The new line-up they have planned is exciting, but network meetings aren't for another week or two to meet with the possible replacements."
When Spears' hiring was announced last May, it was seen as a high stakes gamble by creator Simon Cowell, for a show which had failed to meet sky-high ratings expectations in its first season. Spears pre-X Factor still lived very much in the shadow of her sensational, slow-motion trainwreck period, which culminated in the infamous head-shaving incident of 2007, a moment which remains the gold standard in public celebrity meltdowns. Her addition to X Factor gave the show a high octane dose of voyeuristic interest as pundits wondered whether she would be able to maintain herself on a two hour live television show. Perhaps the most speculated-about figure in the modern pop landscape, the question of how Spears — who was hired for a reported $15 million dollars for several months of work — would behave was thought to be of such intense interest that the public couldn't help but watch.
But in the end, Spears turned out to be the train that didn't wreck. Worse than breaking down on camera, she became the safest of the judges. Appearing heavily coached to limit her exposure, Spears rarely responded to performers with more than five words, holding herself to simple declarations of "I liked it" or "It wasn't your best." Worse still, for a show which depends upon frisson between the judges for much of its chemistry, Spears was unable or unwilling to mix it up with her fellow panelists, who seemed themselves reluctant to push fragile star. In particular, Spears' fellow pop princess on the panel, Demi Lovato, was said to be in awe of her forerunner and on air walked on eggshells around her. On one show in particular, when Lovato argued with judge L.A. Reid on a matter in which he and Spears stood together, Reid challenged Lovato, "Why don't you say that to Britney?", a retort which ended the discussion immediately.
Off-stage, sources on the set reported Spears handling herself in a largely professional manner but she remained sealed off from the general production by an ever-present entourage, numbering in the neighborhood of a dozen. She played the game, it seemed, supporting the show in public appearances, attending rehearsals and the like, but within strict limits. Her trips to the press area after each show to answer questions — a X Factor tradition, could be as brief as three or four minutes before she would suddenly remove herself.
And in the end, despite the intense interest, Spears did not deliver the promised ratings boost. Last season's X Factor airings were plagued by scheduling issues — having to bounce around between Fox's World Series coverage — as well as an over-saturated singing contest market place, where X Factor had to compete for oxygen not only with American Idol but with NBC's newly emergent The Voice. In the midst of all this, not only did Spears fail to bring a ratings bump to the show, but ratings were actually down around 20 percent over the previous season. Given all that Spears' $15 million was looking like no bargain.
It may be getting lost in the shuffle of this news, but it is not to be forgotten what an enormous improvement for Spears' image a merely disappointing performance is. After a record-breaking string of public debacles, she did, indeed, as nobody thought she could, keep it together on two hours of live television twice a week, for two months. It may not have been an inspiring performance, but neither was it a debacle, and she leaves the show with that particular cloud somewhat lifted.
And for X Factor a new season with a new cast means a chance to fight another day. In our mind, the path to salvation could not be clearer.