X Factor 2010 Review: The Science of the Sing-Off

Continuing our review of X Factor series 7, a fascinating trend emerged with the sing-offs. Eight out of nine sing-off survivors in 2010 were the second of the two acts to perform in the Sunday showdown.

Is this a coincidence? It seems unlikely. The point of the sing-off format is twofold: to give those who run the show some control over who is staying in and who is departing; and to create compelling TV moments. It’s hard to believe that producers simply flip a coin to decide the performance order of the sing-off, rather than calculating which order is likely to make for more riveting television.

Needless to say, such a reliable trend is a potential goldmine for punters. There is always a lively Betfair market on the sing-offs, and I made good money from them this year partly through having noticed this “save the second” trend emerge.

As always in betting, though, caution is advised – especially as the sing-off contestant who departs is often at very short odds in a two-horse race. There are therefore other factors I consider in my science of the sing-offs.

The most important is: who have producers shown a greater desire to keep? Sometimes it might not be obvious who that is; on other occasions it very much is. In 2010, an astute observer could arguably have predicted the survivor of every sing-off on this basis: Cher over Mary to get into the final; Mary over Wagner after the Saturday show had made it very clear that finally they wanted Wagner gone; Cher over Paije; Katie over anybody she faced; Treyc over John Adeleye; and Belle Amie over Diva Fever.

Song choices, decided by producers, can also hint at their intentions. Wagner’s ‘Unforgettable’ was clearly a swansong, for example. Katie Waissel was allowed to play to her strengths covering the likes of Etta James; John Adeleye and Diva Fever were not so fortunate. Belle Amie got the highly suitable ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ when surviving against Diva Fever, and the much less suitable ‘Breakaway’ when departing against Katie.

Finally, the order in which judges are called on to vote can sometimes provide a clue. Dermot sometimes starts with Simon, and sometimes with Louis, who of course sit at the two opposite ends of the panel. In four of the nine sing-offs, an act mentored by either Simon or Louis faced an act mentored by someone else (FYD vs Katie, Belle Amie vs Katie, John Adeleye vs Treyc, Mary vs Cher).

In each case, Simon/Louis’s act was eliminated – and interestingly, in each case, Simon/Louis was called on to vote first. This ensured that the first vote to eliminate went against the act who was eventually eliminated, creating tension. However, this is not a rule to rely too much on. In the other five sing-offs, the first vote to eliminate went to the act who actually was eliminated.

Creating tension is likely also the reason why eight of the nine acts saved were the second performers. Producers want to serve up entertaining television, so in general it makes sense for them to want to save the most interesting acts. And in the interests of entertaining television, it also makes sense to create suspense by putting the more interesting act on last of the two in the sing-off.

Add in the fact that the last-up performer is being given a natural advantage, just as in the main show; it feels slightly more natural for the judges to save the act that’s fresher in the memory.

What is very surprising, though, is that it happened so consistently: eight times out of nine. Looking back, this continued a trend which began in 2009. In the first two weeks of series 6, the act up first was saved – but in all five weeks that followed, starting with Danyl Johnson’s bottom two appearance, the second performance won through. That makes it 13 out of the last 14 sing-offs won by the second act.

This hadn’t happened in 2008, when the survivals were much more mixed.

What to make of this? Did producers only realise midway through the 2009 series that saving the second act makes for more compelling television? It seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have figured this out in the first five series.

Perhaps it was another example of the way in which producers seemed not to care so much in series 7 about being more blatant and shameless than ever in pursuit of great TV – other examples being the wildcards and the unexpected twists on elimination rules, with unpredictable double eliminations and the unprecedented week 9 sing-off.

It’s hard to tell whether this shamelessness will continue into X Factor 2011. Perhaps they’ll start mixing it up again in if they worry about becoming too predictable.

Oh, and the exception in 2010, the single sing-off in which the act singing first was eliminated? That was week 5 – an exception in so many other ways, as we discussed at length in yesterday’s post. The fact that Katie was first to perform in the sing-off adds further weight to the idea that either she was not meant to be saved against Treyc, or that doing so was a last-minute change of plan. We’ll probably never know for sure.

[This was part 4 of 10 in our X Factor 2010 Review series. Next: Reading the Runes of the Running Order]

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