It’s a well-established fact that when it comes to voting in reality shows, people have short attention spans. Other things being equal, therefore, the later acts to perform have better chances of getting more votes than the earlier ones. This is because people have short attention spans.
Did we mention that people have short attention spans?
You might expect this to be especially significant in the early weeks of the competition, before acts have had time to build up a fan base. And so it seems to be. Remarkably, in five of the six series of X Factor, the first act to perform in week one has ended up in the bottom two. But that’s not all.
In the first few weeks of the show – when there are more than eight acts on stage – no act performing either last or last-but-one has ever been in the bottom two.
The benefits of singing last of all – the “pimp slot” – are greatest of all. Only one act in X Factor history has ever faced the judges in the bottom two after singing last. (Ashley Mackenzie in 2006, since you ask).
What might surprise you is how significant the running order still is in the later stages of the competition. In the 12 shows which have featured either three or four contestants, the first to sing has been eliminated eight times – more than twice the rate you’d expect from chance.
And in the shows with five, four or three contestants – when elimination is decided by public vote alone – only two acts have been directly eliminated after singing in the pimp slot (Ben Mills in 2006 and Danyl Johnson in 2009). This is less than half the rate you’d expect from chance.
Even in the final, when there are only two acts left, the second one to sing has won four times out of six.
The running order isn’t decided by drawing straws, of course. The X Factor producers decide who performs when, and this gives them arguably their biggest opportunity to nudge the voting public towards their desired outcome – something we discussed in our previous post, on X Factor conspiracy theories. In the next post we’ll examine another way in which the public vote is influenced: judges’ comments.