By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - American viewers have chosen the three singers who will compete in the finals of "The X Factor" after a first season that underwhelmed critics and raised questions about audience fatigue ahead of returning TV contests "American Idol" and "The Voice."
Power ballad singer Melanie Amaro, 19, bluesy Josh Krajcik, 30, and troubled rapper Chris Rene, 28, will sing for a $5 million recording contract in next week's two-part finale of the Fox show.
But after major hype from creator and judge Simon Cowell -- who had initially predicted "X Factor" would replace "American Idol" as the most-watched show on U.S. television -- the program's bickering mentor-judges, big production numbers and flashing lights has left many critics scratching their heads.
"As a viewer, it is agonizing to watch and just so fake that none of it is compelling, " said Annie Barrett, who covers "X Factor" for Entertainment Weekly.
"Everything is a gimmick. It is a glossy, shiny version of a reality show that might give you a seizure because of all the lasers and lights," Barrett told Reuters.
Thursday's semi-final, in which 20-year-old hopeful Marcus Canty was eliminated, drew 9.6 million viewers -- below the audience for a repeat of CBS comedy "The Big Bang Theory" and less than half the regular audience for "American Idol" earlier this year.
Fox executives say they are happy with the viewer numbers, especially among teens, and the show has helped the network reverse its historically patchy fall ratings in the 18-49 viewer group most coveted by advertisers.
Fox has already ordered a second season for the fall of 2012, calling "X Factor" a "monumental success."
CRYING FOR CROW
Andy Dehnart, editor of realityblurred.com, said that for all the new tweaks in the singing contest formula, few were for the better.
"There is no real national buzz about it. I don't think 'X Factor' has broken through the zeitgeist in the same way as 'American Idol'," said Dehnart.
Indeed, it seems the first season's most memorable moment came a week ago when bubbly 13-year-old Rachel Crow collapsed in tears on being sent home, sparking viewer outrage against judge Nicole Scherzinger.
Whoever wins after public votes are announced next Thursday, Cowell's hopes of discovering a new global singing star -- who will be signed to his Sony Music-owned record label SyCo -- may be dashed.
None of the instantly downloadable songs from this week's semi-final were in the Top 50 iTunes singles charts on Friday.
"I don't see anyone here who is going to be the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, which is what the show claimed it was going to do," said Dehnart.
Barrett said that four months of "X Factor" twice a week had made her appreciate "American Idol".
But with NBC's surprise hit "The Voice" returning in February and "Idol's" 11th season beginning in mid-January on Fox, Americans may soon lose their appetite for lengthy singing contests.
"I do think there will be some fatigue going into next season with both 'American Idol' and 'The Voice.' Two nights a week is a huge commitment," Barrett said.
But Dehnart was more optimistic. "If we are going to see any kind of fatigue with this kind of show, it is going to show up now. But I wouldn't be surprised if they all work on their own level."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)