The TV show The X Factor USA is now in its third season, and I for one could not be happier.

In its search for the newest singing sensation, the show auditioned thousands of hopefuls from across the United States, each one vying for the opportunity to be America’s next top superstar. Open to contestants from age 13 and (way) up, the competition is divided into four categories: boys, girls, over 25s and groups. But ultimately, only one – be it an individual or a group – will emerge the victor and win the coveted prize of a $5 million recording contract and a life that will be changed forever.

This year’s panel of four judges consists of music mogul and the brains behind this and other similar shows, Simon Cowell; singer/songwriter Demi Lovato; singer Kelly Rowland, founding member of the pop group Destiny’s Child; and Latina pop singer Paulina Rubio.

British-born Cowell, known for his abrasive manner and no-nonsense comments, seems to have mellowed this year. He is still caustic in his criticism, slinging zingers as he sees fit, but he’s not as nasty and mean-spirited as he was before. He seems to be a kinder, gentler Cowell who appears to have adopted a sense of humor about himself, and it is a refreshing change.

But that cutting edge is still there, which is what his fans, me among them, love about him. His slings and arrows in the auditions included such memorable comments as “You’re like a mouse trying to be an elephant”; “That was the worst minute and a half of my life”; and, my personal favorite (to a would-be quintet), “I think you’d be a very good group if none of you were in it.”

But he is free with his compliments as well, showering worthy contenders with praise when he thinks they deserve it. And he knows whereof he speaks. As Cowell is responsible for launching the careers of such megastars as multi-Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood and the wildly popular boy band One Direction, his opinion carries a lot of weight.

Aside from the savvy panel of judges, another aspect that makes The X Factor so enjoyable is that the auditions are held in arenas with audiences of some 4,000 people. In contrast to one of Cowell’s previous creations, American Idol, where the auditions were held in a closed room with just the four judges, the addition of the massive audience on The X Factor lends an electrifying element to the proceedings. When they like someone, they show it; and when they don’t, they don’t.

I will never forget Season 1 of The X Factor and the audition of Josh Krajcik.

A 30-year-old burrito slinger from Columbus, Ohio, he walked onto the stage to a very lukewarm reception. With his mild demeanor, brown leather jacket, paunchy physique, messy hair and scraggly stubble, the judges and the audience and the TV viewers (me included) were not expecting much.

“What are you going to sing?” Cowell asked.

“‘At Last,’” said Krajcik.

“Really?” said Cowell, his voice filled with skepticism.

The music of the Etta James ballad started, and with the first two words out of his mouth, the crowd began shrieking with delight. By the time Krajcik was through, everyone was on their feet, cheering.

“You just blew me away,” Cowell marveled.

I still get goosebumps remembering that performance.

Krajcik ended up being runner-up on the show, taking second place to the 18-year-old powerhouse Melanie Amaro from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

And that is another factor that makes The X Factor so engaging. Ordinary people of all ages and from all walks of life have a chance to grab that brass ring. And even if they don’t come in first, their exposure on national television can still catapult them to stardom.

Granted, all other singing competitions are designed for unknown wannabes as well, but there is something about the way the contestants and their personal stories are presented on The X Factor that makes these contenders so compelling.

And it’s not just the contestants that are compelling. With each season, the hosts have been improved upon. In Season 1, the show was hosted by the rather lackuster Steve Jones. Not a fan favorite, the Welshman was replaced in Season 2 by Mario Lopez and Khloe Kardashian. Much as I get a kick out of the Kardashians (I must admit, I do keep up with them), Khloe’s hosting abilities left a lot to be desired. Whether a contestant had just been eliminated or had been voted on to stay for another round, her interviewing skills amounted to the same question, shouted above the din of the crowd, “How do you feel?” This season, Lopez is hosting the show on his own. Handsome, warm, charming and on the ball, the actor has the X factor himself.

And, of course, there is the sheer entertainment factor of the program.

Week after week, we are treated to superb singing, original styling and heart-wrenching or upbeat renditions of songs we may or may not have heard before.

So the show, which airs on HOT 3, is now at the point where the thousands of hopefuls and the hand-picked second- chancers have been whittled down to 16: four in the girls category, mentored by Demi Lovato; four in the boys category, mentored by Paulina Rubio; four in the over 25s, mentored by Kelly Rowland; and four in the groups category, mentored by Simon Cowell.

The next stage of the competition is the live shows, where each week one act will be eliminated until the last one standing takes home the grand prize.

Who will it be? We’ll have to watch and see.

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