Regular readers of Sofabet’s X Factor coverage will be familiar with our refrain “first try to work out what the producers want to happen, then ask how likely it is that the voting public will oblige”. In ITV’s other Cowell cash cow, Britain’s Got Talent – which has now screened its penultimate auditions show, and moves to the live semi-finals stage next week – the power of the producers is even greater than it is on the X Factor.
That’s because we see so much less of the contestants. By the time Matt, Rebecca and One Direction faced off in last year’s X Factor final weekend, the voting public had seen them in auditions, at boot camp, judges’ houses, and through nine weeks of live shows. In BGT, by contrast, we see the finalists only three times – in the auditions, in the week of live semi-finals, and then the final itself.
The sheer length of the X Factor makes it hard to control how the contestants’ public images evolve. Things can and do spiral out of the producers’ control (see Leon Jackson and, arguably, Matt Cardle). With relatively fewer exposures to the public, however, the image of BGT contestants can be kept on a tighter leash.
In addition to all the usual tricks of the trade (the staging and editing of the audition segments, what is fed to the tabloids, and so on), the relative unfamiliarity of the BGT acts by the semi-final stage vastly increases the potency of a weapon that is always important in the reality producers’ arsenal: the running order.
In the four series of BGT to date, the last act to perform in the semi-final has topped the vote 14 times out of 18. (3/3 in 2007, 5/5 in 2008, 3/5 in 2009 and again 3/5 in 2010).
The running order matters hugely in the final, as well – following Spelbound’s win from the pimp slot last year, two out of four finals have now been won by the act performing last (the other two winners performed 7th of 10 and 9th of 10, with the acts who performed 10th finishing 2nd and 3rd in those votes).
We’ll look at the stats of the running order in more detail in the next article. For now, though, consider that the decision about which act to put on when is not only about who the producers would like to see doing well in the public vote. It is also about putting on a good show by ending on a high, and keeping the most highly-anticipated acts until later so that people keep watching.
That last consideration is an especially interesting one when you think about how the acts are assigned to the semi-finals, which run from Monday to Friday before the grand final on Saturday. Put yourself in the position of BGT producers deciding who should perform when and on which day. The logical thing to do is to put your strongest act on last in the first semi-final, isn’t it?
In theory, you might think, that ought to maximise the number of viewers who will tune in to the first episode on the Monday and watch it right till the end. Thus – you hope – getting them hooked into a pattern they will repeat for the rest of the week.
Sure enough, the last act to perform in the first semi in 2007 was eventual winner Paul Potts, and in 2009 it was Susan Boyle – the two BGT acts who have, by some distance, generated the most attention following the screening of the auditions.
What about the other two seasons? Last up in the first semi in 2008 was Signature, who won their heat and went on to finish runners-up in the final. And in 2010 the first semi was closed by Spelbound, who won their heat then won the final.
Neither of those acts had generated anything like Potts/SuBo-esque levels of post-audition buzz. But it is intriguing to note that both those acts were also then put on last in the final – as was Paul Potts, meaning that it’s only SuBo of the acts which closed the first semi-final who didn’t then go on to enjoy the considerable advantage of the pimp slot in the final.
It’s hard to tease out cause and effect with Signature and Spelbound. Was their appearance in the last slot in the first semi a sign that producers rated them highly even at that relatively early stage?
Or perhaps the very fact of closing the first semi boosts your vote in comparison to closing other semis? We don’t know, as the raw vote totals aren’t released. But it seems somewhat plausible that viewers may vote more in the first semi than in the subsequent ones, as the initial rush of enthusiasm gives way to an awareness of their mounting phone bill.
And it certainly wouldn’t be shocking if producers, keen to maximise phone vote revenue in the final, were to look at the raw vote totals from the semis before deciding who should get the plum slots in the final. Surely, if you were in their shoes, you’d want to use the running order to whip up the most enthusiasm for the acts who seem to have the strongest fan bases.
Or it could just be a coincidence – if you have theories on this, let us know in the comments box below. At any rate, we’ll be watching with interest to see who closes that opening Monday night semi-final.