Four judges' chairs remained as The X Factor's live elimination show opened tonight, but there were only two judges left to fill them, after TV3 sacked Natalia Kills and Willy Moon.
Mediaworks, the owners of TV3, this afternoon confirmed it had fired Kills and Moon after the husband and wife judges bullied a contestant on live TV last night.
It is understood the media company had come under extreme pressure from sponsors and fellow judges Stan Walker and Melanie Blatt to take action.
In tonight's show, Walker and Blatt held hands as they were welcomed on stage by host Dominic Bowden, before he recalled today's dramatic turn of events.
"Yes, following last night's show, Mediaworks has made the decision that Willy Moon and Natalia Kills are leaving the show," said Bowden.
"From all of us, we believe it was the right thing to do. The good news is we're bringing in new mentors for the boys and the groups. They'll be sitting in those chairs right there next week."
In the meantime, Walker and Blatt will do double duty as mentors, with Blatt taking over Moon's groups category and Walker overseeing Kills' boys.
Blatt was keen to turn the conversation away from the judges' controversy, saying: "It wasn't about the talent last night and this show is all about that. I love this show so much. All the acts that were on last night, they've been working for weeks and weeks to get this right I feel like we didn't talk about them enough. I just want to tell them that I'm so proud and they all smashed it."
In a statement issued this afternoon, Mediaworks chief executive Mark Weldon said: "Last night on X Factor both Kills and Moon made comments that were completely unacceptable.
"While the judges on X Factor are expected to provide critiques of the performances, we will not tolerate such destructive tirades from any of the judges," he said.
"Contestants put their all into this competition and they should expect to receive feedback and criticism that is professional and constructive. We no longer have confidence that Kills and Moon are the right people to perform the role of X Factor judges and they will leave the show, effective immediately."
The owner of the X Factor franchise, FremantleMedia, which has a said the judges had shown "very poor judgement and intention".
"We 100 percent support TV3 and MediaWorks in their decision to remove them. The X Factor does not tolerate the behaviour they displayed last night," a spokesman said.
The network's handling of the X Factor franchise is being closely scrutinised by FremantleMedia and Simon Cowell, who have already warned TV3 producers about bringing the show into disrepute over the Shae Brider controversy.
X Factor executive producer Andrew Szusterman said: "We have reacted decisively and in the best interests of the contestants. We now need to move on and give the contestants and the public the competition they deserve."
TV3 under huge pressure
TV3 had come under huge pressure after Kills and Moon humiliated contestant Joe Irvine last night and called him "disgusting" and "creepy".
Kills accused Irvine of copying her husband, fellow judge Willy Moon, "from the hair to the suit", and said he was a "laughing stock" and made her "sick". Moon added that Irvine reminded him of a creepy killer and found his performance of Cry Me a River "cheap and absurd".
McDonald's said this morning the comments made by Kills and Moon were unacceptable. "We have spoken to MediaWorks [the owners of TV3] regarding the incident involving Natalia Kills and Willy Moon, to make it clear that we believe the comments made were wholly unacceptable."
2Degrees said: "MediaWorks has made the right call today to remove two of the judges from the X Factor NZ panel. Their behavior was out of line with our company values and we are pleased they've made this decision."
Judi Clements, chief executive of Mental Health Foundation, criticised the show, saying the comments by Kills and Moon "encouraged bullying, demeaning behaviour".
"We all have the responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect and not be cruel and hurtful. It's not about special treatment [for anyone suffering mental illness or depression].
"There is an issue about how this behaviour affects young people, in particular... It's the glorification of bullying behaviour."
TV3 chiefs also came under fire from New Zealand on Air, which has given X Factor $800,000 of funding. It said: "We have advised TV3 we are disappointed that the focus has been taken off the music. We do not condone bullying."
The controversy comes as audience numbers for the show continue to fall. Just 256,000 people tuned in to watch last night's episode, down on previous weeks. Earlier in the season, ratings were consistently above 300,000 per episode.
Response to the sackings
Criticism on social media
Both Moon and Kills were heavily criticised on social media for their treatment of Irvine, with Blatt and Walker chiding Kills and saying the situation was out of control.
Walker, who has fronted anti-bullying campaigns, tweeted: "Im sooooo sorry for any offence tonight... Things got real heated & a lil out of control but Joe is allgood, hes the man...."
He also cautioned his followers not to bully Kills and Moon over the incident: "There is a time and place for everything. For ME it ain't on TV. I am completely against bullying, but fighting fire with fire ain't the way."
This morning he posted on Instagram: "It's out of control now... We're better than that... Justice will prevail... Dont attck her cos ur just falling in2 her trap. Then u become the bully... Dont exalt her by insulting her cos u are making her more famous... Like i kinda am now lol... Aaaarrrgg this is stressful... God bless everyone.... Peace & harmony yall..."
He added on Twitter: "Everyone, even tho she is in the wrong, 2 wrongs dont make a right, dont attack her & lower urselves 2 be like that. This is out of control!"
Blatt tweeted last night: "I quite obvs am not cool with what went down last night but remember 2 wrongs do not make a right. whatever the reason or outlet you use."
She tweeted this morning: "Ive tried to keep my cool and stay professional but really @nataliakills? Sorry love , you're a t***".
Mr Irvine responded to the incident, tweeting this morning:
Kills and Moon have not responded directly to the accusations, but have been active on social media.
Kills tweeted this morning: "I love you guys, thanks for your support & understanding my passionate opinions! You know what they say about me .." She included a link to an explicit video of her song Problem.
Last night she tweeted: "Had the most fun at the live shows tonight! So many new followers! Love you all - time to celebrate!" She also wrote "love you baby" to Moon and posted a link a picture of actors Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in the controversial 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Natural Born Killers:
Moon tweeted this afternoon: "These pretzels are making me thirsty", which is slang for "this is making me angry".
'TV3 does not condone bullying'
TV3 had earlier issued a statement on Facebook, saying it did not condone bullying. "Following tonight's episode of The X Factor NZ we received a huge amount of feedback about comments made by our judges. The nature of live television can be unpredictable and we appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinion. TV3 does not condone bullying and are currently on-site with Joe who is doing well," it said.
A petition on Change.org asked for Kills to be removed as a judge from the show has more than 21,000 supporters and Family First called for a boycott of the show.
X Factor viewers, including some past contestants, also criticised Kills, with the hashtag #xfactornz trending on Twitter after the show. Last season's runner-up, Benny Tipene, said he was "gutted that I went back on the show now eh. Especially with someone so heartless. F*** that feedback."
Even All Black Israel Dagg weighed in:
Irvine himself tweeted he had "survived the Kills!"
How it happened
In her judgment of Irvine's performance, Kills said: "As an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property, I am disgusted at how much you have copied my husband, from the hair to the suit," Kills said. "Do you not have any value or respect for originality?
"You're a laughing stock. It's cheesy, it's disgusting, I personally found it absolutely artistically atrocious. I am embarrassed to be sitting here in your presence having to even dignify you with an answer of my opinion ... it's disgusting, you make me sick ... I'm ashamed to even be here."
Moon, who hit headlines over the weekend for allegedly swearing at an Auckland mother in a bakery, continued the criticism. "To me, it just feels a little bit cheap and absurd," he said of the performance.
Moon said Irvine reminded him of Psycho killer Norman Bates: "It's just a little bit creepy ... I feel like you're going to stitch someone's skin to your face and then kill everyone in the audience."
TV3 faces questions over its handling of the X Factor franchise and its reality TV stable. Last month TV3 was at the centre of a media storm for minimising the role an X Factor contestant played in the manslaughter of a teenager in 2004. And on Friday it came under fire over revelations one of the contestants on The Bachelor NZ was sentenced to 18 months' jail for stealing almost $40,000 from her employer.
Moon and Kills have caused headaches for TV3 outside the X Factor. Last week Moon abused an Auckland mother at a bakery, hissing the C-word at her in front of customers and staff.
X Factor producers TV3 issued an apology on Moon's behalf on Friday, saying he regretted the incident and his language, but Moon said at the weekend he was not sorry, and accused the woman, Tracey Neal-Gailer, of lying.
Neal-Gailer had sent a letter to Moon on Facebook last week, asking for an apology, with the Herald publishing it in full on Saturday.
SCROLL TO END OF ARTICLE TO READ TRACEY NEAL-GAILER'S LETTER TO WILLY MOON
But Moon and Kills abused Neal-Gailer on Twitter after the story appeared.
"Not only a **** but a lying **** judging from that 'statement' you [nzherald.co.nz] saw fit to print. Laughable. Bored?," Moon posted.
He added: "'Woman proves my point by writing long inaccurate sad letter detailing how much of a **** she is'". Better headline."
His wife also came out swinging: "Why did you invent a quote my husband NEVER said?! He never apologized to that c*** lady. Stop defending her bullying," Kills wrote.
She added: "Hilarious that lady is proving not only how much of a c*** she is, but also a lying c***! 'Children present'?! Where?!"
Moon had originally abused Neal-Gailer on Tuesday morning at the Baker's Cottage, in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland, where she was buying a cake to celebrate her 51st birthday.
Moon became riled in the bakery carpark. Ms Neal-Gailer believed he thought she had taken his parking space.
"He was a passenger in a car being driven by a woman and he became very upset when I pulled into a space before him, even though I had the right of way," she said.
"He got out of the car and was waving his finger at me and saying, 'No, no, no." He then snarled, 'That was so rude', as we both went into the bakery."
Worse was to follow in the bakery, Moon calling her a "c***" in front of stunned staff and customers. "This is a man who is supposed to mentor young people on national television and what he said was disgraceful," Neal-Gailer said.
"I couldn't believe it when he twice hissed at me, 'You are such a c***'."
Television commentator and founder of throng.co.nz Regan Cunliffe says the ratings for X Factor are "not great" particularly when compared to the first season.
Numbers dropped significantly following the Shae Brider controversy, however, Cunliffe says that was part of a wider trend, which sees viewer numbers drop off after the audition rounds. "I don't think Shae Brider in itself had an impact on the ratings," he says. "But the problem they have is all these things start to mount up."
Cunliffe was in the live studio audience last night when Kills made her comments to Irvine but says, at first, the audience didn't realise she was condemning him.
"The strange thing is you can't see the judges' faces ... She starts talking and half the audience went 'yeah' and cheered. All of a sudden, it was like, 'where the hell is she going with this?'. Very quickly, the audience turned. There was certainly a sense of shock."
Cunliffe said he was disappointed by the outburst and the fact it has diverted attention from other contestants' performances. "Once again, here we are all talking about the judges. 13 acts are trying to make a career for themselves. Who's talking about them today?"
TV3's handling of X Factor is being closely scrutinsed by FremantleMedia and Cowell's company, Syco Entertainment, which own the format. A clause in the contract stipulates the show can't be brought into disrepute.
Last month Cowell and Freemantle Media blamed TV3 producers for "a very poor editorial decision" for allowing a convicted killer on the show.
They said they had had serious discussions with TV3 about contestant Brider, and said "a more rigid approval process" has been introduced so that it wouldn't happen again.
Brider was sentenced to eight years' jail for his part in the manslaughter of 16-year-old Jeremy Frew in Wanganui in 2004, and in a segment aired on X Factor last week admitted on air that he was involved in a fatal stabbing and described the crime as "a commotion".
However, the victim's mother says Brider did not tell the whole truth in the segment and lashed out at TV3 for not warning her of Brider's appearance.
A clause in the contract held by Syco Entertainment and FremantleMedia stipulates the show cannot be brought into disrepute in accordance with the third-party license agreement. It is understood that special dispensation would have needed to be sought to use Brider, and MediaWorks failed to get permission.
Natalia Kills: Twitter reacts
Tracey Neal-Gailer's letter to WIlly Moon
Dear Willy Moon,
You may or may not remember me because I honestly don't know how many people you verbally abuse in any given day. I am the one at the bakery this morning that you called (actually hissing!) the 'C' word in front of a shop full of bakery customers and staff. This was after a small incident where you were delayed by a matter of seconds after I went in front of you into the bakery carpark (turning off a busy main road, having cars behind me and, actually, the legal right of way as I was turning left and you were turning right).
This incident seemed to enrage you to the point of getting out of your car, shaking your finger at me and shouting. I thought at the time that perhaps you were upset that I might be taking the last carpark, but no, there were several empty spaces available. After being 'told off' by you in the carpark, we both proceeded to transact our bakery purchases.
It was upon leaving that you thought it incumbent upon yourself to remind me of my transgression by using that particular word.
Given your current public profile, I am surprised that you thought that you were entitled to use language like that at any time, let alone in front of a shop full of people, at least half of whom recognised you. The two young Asian girls next to you, who had been whispering about you in a look-who-it-is-golly-a-celebrity kind of way, looked shocked and the lady behind the counter asked if I was alright. I was a bit shaken up but thanks for asking.
Can I suggest a short brush-up course on the current road rules and perhaps some anger management therapy? The groups that you are supposedly 'mentoring' are very likely to annoy you at some point and we wouldn't want any embarrassing, misogynist and potentially actionable, outbursts caught on camera, would we?
The woman you called a c*** this morning at 9.15 at the Bakers Cottage in Kingsland (in case there are any other women you have called this today).
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.