Simon Cowell’s Return To ‘X Factor UK’ Scores Best Launch Since 2011 With 9.5M Viewers

In a much ballyhooed return, creator Simon Cowell is back on the judging panel of ITV’s singing competition show The X Factor UK. The 11th cycle kicked off last night with 9.49M viewers and a 43 share from 8-9:25PM local. (It peaked with 10.6M viewers and a 47 share.) Over the last decade, the show’s best debut rating was in 2011 with 11.3M viewers; the low end of the scale was the 2004 kickoff with 4.9M. Last night’s bow is tied with 2007 for the No. 5 best perf.

This is Cowell’s first season back on the flagship show after spending the last three years at the now defunct U.S. version. It’s been hoped his return would help goose ratings after last December’s finale hit a six-year low. He was joined on the stage last night by Cheryl (Cole) Fernandez-Versni, back on the program after a four-year absence, new judge Spice Girl Mel B, and stalwart Louis Walsh. There have been some changes including giving viewers the ability to vote for free using the show’s dedicated app and the age limit being dropped to 14.

In press notes for the new X Factor season, Cowell said he had missed British contestants while he was away. “I’ve always thought on these shows, for whatever reason, the best people have come from Britain.” He cited Leona Lewis and One Direction, among others, adding “We’re lucky the show does attract people who do want to be big recording artists, rather than wanting to win a singing competition – there is a difference.”

He’s not looking for sob stories, either. “I mean seriously, I’m just so over them. I always say the same thing. I want someone who can become a star in this country, but just as importantly, can become a star in other countries.”

X Factor overlapped for about 15 minutes last night with episode 2 of Season 8 of Doctor Who which aired on BBC One from 7:30-8:15PM local. X Factor also airs new shows on Sunday, and beginning next weekend will go head-to-head with the Season 12 launch of BBC One’s popular Strictly Come Dancing. Cowell recently accused the BBC of wanting to “damage” his show by slotting it then. “I always think that when people do that, the people they are pissing off are the viewers,” Cowell said at the program’s launch last week per The Guardian. “And they say this isn’t a ratings battle. It is. That’s why they did it.” In turn, the BBC said it was trying to get out of the way of a double ep of ITV soap Corontation Street which had been bumped to Sunday to avoid soccer on Monday. “We always try to avoid direct clashes but it’s important that Strictly launches in primetime and with the extra episode of Coronation Street coming in, it’s unfortunately left us with very little room to move on this occasion,” a BBC rep told Digital Spy.

It’s not the first time a Cowell show has clashed with a BBC program. Last year, Cowell‘s Britain’s Got Talent faced off with the BBC’s The Voice UK. At the time, the BBC ended up re-jiggering its schedule a bit and a spokesperson called ITV’s firing shot “disappointing” saying “it’s not in the best interest of the fans.” The networks previously battled it out over the shows in 2012.

AXS TV recently entered a deal with FremantleMedia International and Syco Entertainment to air the UK version of The X Factor in the U.S. for the first time — it debuts starting tonight.

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