LONDON - After two weeks of weak ratings due to the dominant role of the BBC's Summer Olympics coverage, British commercial broadcaster ITV is on Saturday bringing back one of its big guns.
Simon Cowell's The X Factor returns to ITV1 for its ninth season after being the country's number one entertainment show for eight years in a row. The music talent show was the U.K.'s biggest entertainment show last year, coming in second only to the Royal Wedding in terms of overall ratings. The show's finale at Wembley Arena drew an audience of 13.5 million, down from a 2010 average of 17.2 million.
An average of 12.3 million watched The X Factor in 2011, a 47 percent share of the audience watching TV at the time, according to a representative for the show.
Airing in the 8pm-9:15pm time slot, the show will see one new judge in its latest season as Pussycat Dolls star Nicole Scherzinger replaces Kelly Rowland. Take that's Gary Barlow, Tulisa Contostavlos and Louis Walsh, the only judge who has been with the show from the beginning, return to the judges' desk as does Dermot O'Leary as host for his sixth year.
The audition episodes, which have been shot in recent months, will feature such musical talent as Spice Girls Geri Halliwell and Mel B, Anastacia, Rita Ora and Leona Lewis as guest judges.
This season, the producers of the show from Cowell's Syco Entertainment and RTL Group's FremantleMedia UK unit's Thames, looked to expand the talent pool to open things up to more experienced performers.
"Every year we bring fresh ideas to the series, as even though we are the country's number one entertainment show we don't rest on our laurels," said Mark Sidaway, co-executive producer of The X Factor. "We want to keep it surprising and fresh for everyone who watches the show. This year, for the first time anyone aged 16 and over can apply even if they have a management deal in place."
That is also something the U.S. version of the show is also allowing this year.
Amid a big number of slightly older performers, the show has redrawn the age lines for its traditional "Overs" category. Instead of people 25 and older, the age limit for that group this year 28-plus.
"This year, the level of talent has been amazing," Barlow said in a statement. "In particular, there was an overwhelming amount of amazing singers in the "Overs" category, so we have raised the age limit of that category to spread the talent around." Some observers are hoping for a winner from this category this year.
Also, expect to see some people with guitar and song writing skills on the U.K. show. "We are also letting acts perform original music, and they can play guitar too, which is really exciting and has brought different talent to this year's series," Sidaway said.
"Everyone will be blown away," said Scherzinger in a statement.
The U.K. version of the hit show is also looking to diversify beyond London. The bootcamp phase will take place out of London for the first time -- in Liverpool. And, in another first, the live final will happen in another famous British music town, Manchester.
But the producers also hope to get people to tune in by not sharing all the surprises they have up their sleeves. "We have other surprises planned...so you'll have to watch to find out what they are," Sidaway said.
He didn't want to discuss rumors that finalists may get to sing with holograms of dead music legends like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson for now. "You'll have to wait and see," said Sidaway. "We are always looking at new ideas." How will Scherzinger add to the mix of U.K. judges? "Nicole is an international artist, so she knows what it takes to make it on the worldwide stage," Sidaway said.
"She has worked hard to get where she is, and she'll bring that experience to the show and she'll be able to use it with her contestants."
Cowell remains an executive producer on the show, even though he has no on-air role. "He is across our plans for the show and is as passionate about this as he is about the U.S. version," Sidaway said.
The X Factor artists, such as boys band One Direction, Leona Lewis, JLS and Cher Lloyd, have sold more than 40 million records in the U.K. and more than 100 million worldwide.
While the show runners don't typically discuss ratings targets, O'Leary and Walsh in statements made clear what The X Factor wants to accomplish this season.
Walsh predicted that "it's going to be our best [season] yet." And O'Leary said: "We're back, and we are going to be better than ever. We're the country's number one singing show, and we want to keep it that way."