I used to love The X Factor. I’d watch it religiously, every week (in a really ironic way, obviously…). I openly acknowledged that it was trashy television, but that didn’t matter because it was entertaining. I’d start out ‘just watching the auditions’ but by the end of them I was hooked and would end up watching a whole series, right up to the final. It was weirdly compulsive (which I guess it needed to be, given the frequency and length of the ad breaks). Not any more. I haven’t watched a full episode for a while now, let alone a series. It’s not just me either. The ratings for the last series were the worst since 2006. Is anyone surprised? No, not really. Here’s why.
1) It has become too much about the music. I don’t know anyone anywhere who has ever sat down in front of The X Factor so that they can have an evening filled with quality tunes. Let’s face it, when has it EVER been about music? It’s only recently that winners have released fully-fledged original albums. Previously, a hastily-put-together cover album released as soon after the final as possible would suffice. No, The X Factor is primarily about good TV. That’s why I watched it. Not because I enjoy under-par Whitney Houston covers, but because I enjoy watching Barbara from Manchester belt out You Raise Me Up whilst Simon Cowell glowers in the corner and Louis Walsh fails to contain his mirth. So why the sudden change of tune (literally)? Why, X Factor, do you suddenly think you’re the go-to guy for nurturing new ‘home-grown’ singer songwriters? There’s a reason why singer-songwriters don’t play arenas. The X Factor format sucks all the rawness out of acoustic performances, and replaces it with confetti and pyrotechnics. I can just hear the producers now: ‘Cor, that Laura Marling’s alright isn’t she? But y’know how this performance could really be enhanced? If she chucked in a gospel choir and a key change… and Brian Friedman could definitely do some edgy interpretive dance thing with that chorus…’
2) The auditions are no longer funny. I miss the slightly makeshift nature of the small audition room with the cardboard background and the X taped onto the floor. Often, the most entertaining part of the audition process was watching the judges snort into their teacups when a self-confessed ‘next Justin Timberlake’ slaughtered Cry Me A River. The minute the live auditions were introduced, gone was the hilarity of the bad audition. You don’t get gems like this any more, mainly because the audience will have ruined any opportunity for awkward stifled laughing by yelling ‘OFF’ repeatedly from the get-go.
3) The show is now bigger than the talent it nurtures. This is (indirectly) the fault of Leona Lewis. After the previous winners (Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward) no one ever expected to hear a voice like Leona’s on The X Factor. She took everyone by surprise. I think that’s when The X Factor started thinking it could ‘do music’. Cue the whole show taking itself far too seriously. Wind forward six years and the final is now held in an arena, as if the contestants are already platinum selling artists. The problem with this is that it just makes most of the finalists look mediocre and a bit lost before they’ve even begun.
4) It’s running out of twists. ‘OMG guys lets put four or five good-looking-but-mediocre soloists together to form a band that fourteen year olds will worship and idolise! No. Wait. Lets get these judges to have a petty feud about nothing in particular! And then lets get one of them to take a decision over an amazing contestant versus an untalented novelty one to deadlock! Wait, what’s that? A contestant has a chest infection? Let’s act like we don’t have a standard procedure for when that happens, just so we can CREATE EXTRA DRAMA. Ok, now run the VT of the favourite-to-win in their previous job at Asda.’ Yawn.
5) The X Factor now actively courts the press, which is not enjoyable for anyone, especially not the contestants themselves. This weird, cultish fascination with their every move is a depressing reflection on our society’s obsession with celebrity culture. And they’re barely celebrities. The thing is, most people like to watch TV shows to escape for an hour or two and forget about that deadline they’ve got tomorrow, what to cook for tea that night, that bill they have to pay, or what on earth to do for their dissertation (sob). Just because we watch for an hour every week, it doesn’t mean we want to know about it every. day. for. the. rest. of. that. week. I don’t want any TV show in my face 24/7 (ok, apart from maybe Sherlock. I literally cannot get enough of Sherlock. Hurry up and stop prancing around pretending to be fantasy creatures so you can FILM THE NEXT SERIES). When you walk into WH Smith in X Factor season you are confronted by a magazine section filled with contestants badmouthing each other and stumbling out of clubs at 5.30am (then we watch them on Saturday in their VT claiming that their week has been ‘non-stop’ and ‘such hard work’). The thing is, this kind of press attention now seems to be actively sought after by the programme-makers. The contestants are herded from party to premiere to photoshoot, being ‘papped’ all the way. That’s not entertaining. It’s just invasive. For them and for us.
So there you go X Factor. Bring back the cardboard audition room. Bring back Ant and Seb. Get rid of the singer-songwriters, they’re better off on their own. And please don’t keep making the mistake of thinking that you’re anything other than just good old-fashioned Saturday night entertainment.
(You can keep the key changes, though. Everybody secretly loves a good key change.)