As punters on the X Factor, we care about the health of the show. And we are worried for it. Three weeks in, has there ever been such an uninspiring collection of potential winners comprising the top five in the betting?
The fact that The Risk are favourites speaks volumes about the mediocrity of their competition. Here is a competent boyband, no more no less, who have been artificially inflated by three great slots in the running order (13/16, 10/12, 9/11) and pimping from the judges. They remind us of Foinavon – out in front only because they’re the only ones who haven’t fallen over. (Yet.)
Second favourite Janet Devlin always looked a risky Plan A, with a quirky voice and “little girl lost” persona that seemed likely to wear thin at some point. As a strong black female, third favourite Misha B faced an uphill struggle to be taken seriously as a winner even before the astonishing character assassination last Saturday, on which more below.
After them in bookmakers’ lists comes Craig Colton, who has become steadily more anonymous since his standout week 1 performance and would surely be a disastrous winner for the show – if the considerably more talented Matt Cardle evidently can’t break the curse of the male winner, what chance for the sidegob-singing biscuit boy?
The top five in the betting is rounded out by the even more anonymous Sophie Habibis, who remains known to the public primarily as the one who got through judges’ houses instead of Jade Richards and the one who survived the big twist instead of Amelia Lily.
This time last year, we had three likeable and credible potential winners in Matt, Rebecca and One Direction; Cher was about to have her moment in the sun with ‘Stay’, and Mary Byrne had not yet been ground into submission. This time two years ago, Joe was solid, Olly was entertaining, Stacey was adorable, Danyl was polarising but talented, and Lucie had not yet been sacrificed for Jedward.
How did we come to have such a flawed collection of contenders this time around? In our opinion the show’s producers have made a series of disastrous decisions, stretching right back to the very first act shown on the very first audition show.
That, of course, was Frankie Cocozza. When we reviewed his audition, we thought he might be good for a bit-part role in the early live shows. But somebody on the show evidently thought an arse tattoo was enough of a substitute for a voice for them to be able to build Frankie up into a star of the whole series. They invested heavily in him at bootcamp and judges’ houses and effectively constructed the boys category around him, sacrificing much more credible auditionees – notably Lascel Woods and John Adams – along the way.
Having sent Gary into the live shows with such an unbalanced category, they have then proceeded to criminally undersell its strongest asset – the talented and likeable Marcus Collins. They lumbered him with a difficult song in week 1, an unsuitable song in week 2, and then the death slot in week 3, from which he delivered a stonkingly good performance while half the audience were still watching Strictly.
The girls category has been, if anything, even more ineptly handled. After the audition shows, we described Kelly as having an “embarrassment of riches”. Yet three weeks in, of the three remaining girls, one has been publicly dissed as a bully and two have been repeatedly dismissed on air as boring. What on earth are producers thinking?
The VTs of Janet and Sophie talking to journalists were an appalling idea. We saw Janet mumbling that she “doesn’t have the stereotypical X Factor package” and “if people think I don’t have the X Factor, they shouldn’t vote for me”. After Gary had damningly told Sophie in week 2 that she lacked “spark”, we saw her denying to journalists that she was boring, in a rather boring way.
Of course, we then had the payoff of the journalists VTing about how impressed they were, but the damage was done. Any politician knows that you don’t repeat an opponent’s criticism of you in order to deny it – it merely reinforces the criticism in voters’ minds. It’s an elementary mistake.
To compound the situation with Janet, the show mystifyingly included Louis VTing that she is “boring”, and had Dermot reference the comment in her post-song interview. This is utterly baffling behaviour. If you’re worried about falling ratings, what would possess you to plant the thought in viewers’ minds that the heavily-hyped golden girl of the series is too dull to be worth tuning in for?
We can only assume that the show was desperate to create any kind of talking point, and – like Big Brother in its dog days – has forgotten how to do so without throwing some negativity around.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that panic about falling ratings also prompted the extraordinarily inappropriate decision to have Louis and Tulisa accuse Misha B of bullying live on air, instead of dealing with the issue through a quiet word backstage.
As tpfkar noted in the comments, the decision to engineer this controversy right at the end of the show looked like a reaction to the stories that only 5.5 million people had stayed tuned for the last 15 minutes of the previous week. The price paid was that, while the pimp slot is usually used to send viewers off feeling good about themselves, this time the show ended on a deeply unpleasant note.
As Dug puts it in the comments, this was “something more terrible than any X-factor contestant has ever been called before – a ‘bully’. Not ‘a diva’, not ‘difficult’ but bully – a word that equates with malice and intimidation.” The decision to air such a serious allegation in public, in the apparent hope of cheap publicity, deserves to come back and bite the show.
At least the wording of Louis’s and Tulisa’s criticism, along the lines that Misha doesn’t realise how she comes across, leaves the door open to a rehabilitation journey. But still, to have turned the strongest-looking category for years into two bores and a bully – in the space of just three live shows – suggests a level of ineptitude that would have us despairing if we were Simon Cowell.
The groups category is another that has been maladroitly handled, in two ways. First, producers backed the wrong boyband in their bootcamp and judges’ houses editing, giving more positive coverage to Nu Vibe. By the time the first live show came around, they had realised their mistake. But even having decided to strangle Nu Vibe at birth, they still went ahead with their second mistake – losing 2 Shoes.
Given that they couldn’t get rid of Nu Vibe quickly enough in week 2, it is very hard to imagine another explanation for the ditching of 2 Shoes than that programme makers were nervous about stepping into the unknown territory of having a heavily pregnant contestant. While one can understand why this might be, if indeed it was the case, was it really a decision that demanded to be made?
Surely the show could have billeted Charley and Lucy in a quiet hotel away from the X Factor house, exempted them from all but non-essential duties, and provided 24/7 midwife monitoring for Charley? We strongly suspect that the public would have taken the little third Shoe to their hearts – imagine all the VTs featuring ultrasound scans that could have been shown – and kept 2 Shoes around for a long run in the competition. (Don’t forget, Charley actually can sing). It could have been the feelgood television story of the autumn.
Our reading of the bigging-up of The Risk these first three weeks is that it has been a panic reaction to the possibility of Tulisa being out by halfway – in stark contrast to One Direction last year, which felt meticulously planned from the audition stages. And we’re not convinced that it’s working. The fact that The Risk were given running order help for the third week in a row suggests to us that their first public vote may have been less than reassuring (One Direction were sent out 4th in week 2).
Nor were they done any help by their VT this week, which showed them out on the lash with Derry creepily boasting about hitting on another man’s girlfriend. As Sofabet commenter Jack said, “that made me really dislike him”. Presumably, realising that Frankie Cocozza is surely not long for this world, the show decided to line up The Risk to take over his mantle as jack-the-lads – but we doubt that will do them any more favours than it has done for Frankie.
Following on from “dump on the boys” week last week, the dissing of the three girls this week along with The Risk’s VT suggests that in their eagerness to create talking points, producers are willing to undermine even the acts they want to succeed.
As a result, they are poisoning their own well. Week 3’s “rock week” theme was a microcosm of this. One or two arguments between judges about whether a song counts as “rock” make for good knockabout fun. But this year, it seemed like every other song featured judge bickering about the theme. The overall impression was of a show too incompetent to follow through on its own self-made rules.
Above all, programme makers seem to have forgotten that the viewing public need acts they can feel good about rooting for. Johnny Robinson comes over extremely sympathetically, but his shelf life is limited. Which credible potential winners are viewers supposed to spend the next seven weeks tuning in for because they want to see them do well?
As punters holding win bets on Marcus Collins, we live in hope that producers might realise that his sunny personality offers one way to drag the show out of the negativity in which they have mired it. As fans of the show, however, we fear they may have painted themselves into a corner of unpleasantness from which they will find it difficult to escape.
Do you agree that producers have made some spectacular miscalculations this year, or are we missing a master plan? As always, do please share your thoughts in the comments box below.