Hitting a Sour Note: Cheryl Cole’s Accent Silenced on The X Factor

Key members of "The X Factor USA" production team gather at the program's launch party: (l-r) co-hosts Steve Jones and Nicole Scherzinger; and judges L.A. Reid, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Cheryl Cole. Later, Scherzinger replaced Cole as a judge on the program.

by Jeff Hutter

I’d like to introduce you to Cheryl Cole.   Most of you probably don’t know who she is, but you could have. You can thank Rupert Murdoch and FOX TV network executives for removing her from U.S. prime-time television, specifically the U.S. debut of Simon Cowell’s television program The X Factor.

Cole is a multi-platinum selling solo recording artist, a member of one of the most successful all-female recording acts, reality television competition winner, judge of the U.K. version of The X Factor (where she mentored two of the show’s previous winners), and recipient of the dubious distinction as “England’s Sweetheart” (sorry Kate Middleton). With such an extensive and hyphenated resume, you’d think she would be the ideal candidate to help multimedia entrepreneur, Simon Cowell; choreographer/performer, Paula Abdul; and record executive, L.A. Reid mentor wannabe-popstars to fame on the U.S. version of The X Factor. That was the case for two weeks, at least.

After sitting alongside the other judges during preliminary auditions in Chicago and Los Angeles, Cole was fired without warning and replaced by former Pussycat Doll and original X Factor co-host, Nicole Scherzinger. Explanations for her abrupt dismissal ranged from homesickness to lack of chemistry with Abdul. Eventually, network representatives cited her thick Geordie accent as rationale for their decision to replace the British star. Oh, did I forget to mention that Cole, a native of Northeastern England, has what executives considered an unintelligible accent?  You can watch an interview with Cole and judge for yourself whether you can understand her or not.

Even though executives decided not to risk the show’s success with a voice that may have hit a sour note with Americans, the program has averaged only 12 million viewers, failing to meet Cowell’s ambitious expectations of attracting 20 million viewers. This is not to say the show has been a total flop. It helped FOX win the highly coveted 18-49 demographic on Wednesday nights, but it has been trounced by ABC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy, Modern Family, which drew nearly two million more viewers than The X Factor.

Despite Cole’s untimely departure from the show, she appeared on two airings before disappearing without explanation, granting viewers the opportunity to evaluate her performance. An unscientific audience poll suggests that viewers preferred Cole’s effervescent critiques over Scherzinger’s robotic feedback by nearly 30 percent.

Cole’s truncated tenure on The X Factor begs the question, “Are we, as American television viewers, stubborn or even xenophobic when considering who we invite into our homes each week?” Or do television executives and producers misconceive our tastes?  Perhaps they err on the side of caution to ensure we don’t tune out of a program when we are greeted by someone unlike us.

Standardization of voice is prominent in American media. Surely, we have all heard the anecdote of journalists being trained to adopt a neutral Midwestern accent and radio presenters studying speech in Connecticut. But, has a desire to maintain the status quo of dialect and preemptive measures to regulate standardization done more harm than good?

Different accents have proven popular with American television audiences. Southern accents have bolstered the success of contestants season after season on American Idol and Sofia Vergara’s thick Colombian accent on the aforementioned Modern Family has propelled her to fame. Critics have even condemned Tyra Banks for encouraging Danielle Evans, eventual winner of America’s Next Top Model, to ditch her Southern accent, with some claiming that such advice was racist.

As the rest of the globe is bombarded with Hollywood films and exported American television programs they are the recipients of the standard American accent. It is unfortunate that the creators and distributors of some domestic programs not only deny us the ability to dictate our own taste for linguistic quirks but also hamper other displays of diversity.

While this discussion has focused on a very specific media issue, it is indicative of a bigger issue regarding the diversity of American television programming. The fear of taking a risk and deviating from the concept of mainstream Americana has overshadowed the need for media to reflect the changing social, racial, and ethnic demographic of our country.

A little international flair in the form of a Geordie accent might be nice too.

(The photo is from the The X Factor website and is used for promotional purposes.  The program is produced by Syco TV and is shown on the FOX TV network. The latest installment of The X Factor airs tonight, Oct. 25 in the U.S.  To see a montage of some of Cole’s moments on The X Factor, please check below.  )

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