Until they both departed in week 8’s bonfire of the headline-grabbers, the two defining acts of X Factor 2010 had undoubtedly been Wagner and Katie Waissel. Their respective X Factor journeys were taken along very different paths, and may shed some light on the fascinating question of how much of X Factor is scripted well in advance and how much is made up on the hoof.
One thing that seemed fairly obvious from the audition shows was that Katie had been lined up from the start as a talking point of the series. Wagner, on the other hand, seemed like an improvised stroke of genius – it had looked to us from the audition shows like Storm Lee was being set up to play the “annoy Simon” role that became Wagner’s. We reckon producers probably realised that they had struck a rich seam of tabloid gold in Wagner only when he memorably played the bongos in week one, and that’s why Storm was thrown to the wolves in week 2.
That first week, however, nearly saw producers lose both the acts that would come to hog the column-inches. Katie polled 1.55% of the vote, only a smidgeon above the bottom act of all (Nicolo Festa, on 1.36%) who was automatically eliminated. Wagner, meanwhile, got 1.91% – just 0.2% clear of replacing FYD in the sing-off zone.
The show faced a problem. Here were two acts that looked highly promising for generating tabloid publicity – the lifeblood of the show, as publicity equals ratings equals advertising revenue. But neither, evidently, were very popular with the voting public. What could they do?
One thing they could do was scrap the initial plan to have double eliminations in the first four shows. Double eliminations created a risk for producers, because the bottom act of all was eliminated without the judges having a chance to save them. After week two, there was no double elimination at all until week eight, the week when both Wagner and Katie departed.
Then they had to find strategies to keep the two acts around, and here is where their paths diverged. It is somewhat important to the show’s image to maintain the myth that it is a singing competition, which means it would have been difficult to save Wagner from a sing-off. They might have done it – as Simon did with Jedward over Lucie in the previous season – but it was better for them to avoid that situation if they could.
Instead, every trick in the book was used to magnify Wagner’s support – good slots in the running order, fun mashups, memorable productions. The graphic shows how this proved just enough, week after week, to keep the Brazilian above the sing-off zone:
The narrowness of the margins involved helps us to appreciate just how delighted producers must have been at the emergence of an online “Vote Wagner” campaign among people who were under the mistaken impression that they were annoying rather than assisting the show by keeping him in.
Katie, meanwhile, was just about good enough vocally to save credibly from sing-offs – or, at least, not awful enough to inspire any mischievous “Vote Waissel” campaign. So the strategy here was to wildly overpraise her in an attempt to make those saves seem as credible as possible. A sympathy bounce from the first week’s sing-off kept her clear of the dropzone until week four, when she finished above Belle Amie and was kept on deadlock.
Week 5 was another fascinating insight into the scripted vs improvised debate. The key question before the show was whether Katie could enjoy a second sympathy bounce following the week 4 singoff. Daniel and I considered the matter and concluded that she wouldn’t. The running order of Saturday’s show then suggested that producers were making no effort to keep Katie safe.
Katie duly found herself in the bottom two with Treyc – and when the voting statistics were released, we discovered that Katie had finished bottom. That means Katie would have been sent home if the judges’ vote had gone to deadlock. Recall that both Treyc and Katie were mentored by Cheryl. With Dannii voting to save Treyc, and Louis and Simon both opting to save Katie, if it had fallen to Cheryl to cast the fourth and final vote then it would have been practically impossible for her to do anything other than send it to deadlock.
But she didn’t get the chance to cast the deciding vote. Instead of going to Cheryl last, Dermot came to her immediately after Simon. She was clearly unprepared, stonewalled for a while, then said she would abstain, and only belatedly suggested that Dermot come back to her after Dannii and Louis had voted. But Dermot ignored her, evidently pressed for time, and so Katie was saved 2:1 in shambolic-seeming circumstances.
It looked to us at the time that this was straightforward flub by Dermot – that he’d absent-mindedly gone to Cheryl too early, and the show then ran out of time to correct the situation. After all, if producers had been so keen to save Katie that week, why hadn’t they given her more help in the Saturday show? If this was a plan to save Katie, it was a risky one: Cheryl clearly wasn’t in on it (unless she’s a great actor), and if she’d been more quick-witted she could have said “Come to me last, Dermot” straight away and it wouldn’t have worked.
With hindsight, we start to wonder if it might actually have been a plan after all – but a brilliant, on-the-hoof, last-minute one. We wonder if producers had intended to accept losing Katie, but when she hilariously interrupted her sing-off song by yelling “sod it” and sitting down on the stage, decided she was such good entertainment value that they had to have a throw of the dice at keeping her around.
Week 6 saw Katie again fail to get much of a bounce (but enough to best Aiden on deadlock), before in week 7 she unexpectedly enjoyed a belated bounce of enormous proportions, carrying her to second place of the eight contestants. That was the week she sang ‘Help’ from the pimp slot with a new haircut. Yet again, producers gave Wagner just enough help to keep him afloat.
In the run up to week 8, the “Vote Wagner” campaign was in full swing and his odds in the outright market ludicrously plummeted to single figures (allowing Daniel to build up £28,000 of liabilities on Betfair for around a 10% return). Producers decided this was the week to turn the full force of their firepower on Wagner, coming up with 28 ingenious tactics to suppress his vote.
Watching that week 8 show, Daniel and I debated whether the all-guns-blazing approach to Wagner signified that producers were more scared of him surviving or more hopeful of getting him into bottom place, thereby allowing them to save Katie yet again (over Mary, as it would have been). Looking at the statistics, this is still unclear. One the one hand, the big W was only 1.42% off One Direction in fourth – and if he’d dropped them into the sing-off zone, that really would have embarrassed Simon Cowell.
On the other hand, Katie’s stunning vote in week 7 might well have tempted them to think they could manouevre her above Wagner. But the comedown from that sympathy bounce was a steep one, and the journeys of the two most entertaining characters of the series fittingly ended together.