How much do the X Factor producers care who wins? It’s obviously a pertinent question for punters in the win market. In the Sofabet comments box, while it seems everyone has been agreed for some weeks now that producers care very much about getting Little Mix into the final, there has been a sharp divide of views on how much they will care about Little Mix winning.
At one end of the spectrum, Rob speculated that producers may be so keen on Little Mix winning, they would try to engineer the two weakest possible opponents into the final. At the other extreme, EM has frequently expressed the view that all producers care about is building up three or four acts who will be marketable after the show, and which of them wins is immaterial.
Certainly recent experience suggests that getting to the final matters more for post-show charts success than winning it. Last year’s beaten finalists Cher and One Direction have this year seen their astutely-pitched debut singles go straight to the top of the charts, while ‘Run For Your Life’ describes what Matt Cardle should probably have done when this Gary Barlow-penned dirge was proposed as his launching pad.
From 2009’s finalists, second placed Olly enjoyed more chart success than winner Joe McElderry, who needed to drop down a league in reality show terms to get a second bite at the cherry by winning Popstar To Operastar. Meanwhile, arguably the most commercially successful X Factor graduates of all – if we look more broadly than the charts – are Jedward, who finished down in 6th.
From the class of 2008, JLS have clearly been done no harm by finishing second. 2007’s alumni are largely best forgotten about, though second-placed Rhydian Roberts is at least still releasing records, unlike winner Leon Jackson. You have to go back to 2006, when Leona beat Ray Quinn, to find a year in which the winner has outperformed the beaten finalists.
Can we draw the lesson that producers won’t care? We can see the case for thinking along the lines proposed by Richard: be relaxed about the prospect of Marcus winning, as then he’d be the one lumbered with the Gary Barlow-penned Chistmas single; keep the more marketable Little Mix and Misha B under wraps for a more carefully-planned launch single next summer, a la One Direction and Cher.
But our guess is that the producers probably do want a commercially viable act to win, and we have two reasons for guessing this.
The first is that it would make sense for them to care, because it matters for the long term health of the franchise (admittedly the long term health of the franchise does not appear to have been uppermost in programme-makers’ minds this season).
Without wanting to sound elitist, it’s one thing for those of us who enjoy analysing the show in forums such as this to discuss how it doesn’t matter whether or not you win in terms of post-show commercial success, but if we were the show’s producers we would very much want to avoid that thought penetrating the consciousness of the average X Factor viewer.
The need for drama dictates that the viewing public believe a finalist when they say “I’m so nervous, Dermot, I want this more than anything”. If it became widely believed that they were really thinking “actually, Dermot, history shows that third place is a perfectly good springboard to commercial success, so I’m quite relaxed about tonight”, would people stop voting? Would they stop watching?
There is, of course, an additional consideration this year in terms of the health of the format – it would presumably be useful to establish that a group can win it.
The second reason we assume that producers care who wins is that some of the tactics we analyse in terms of which acts they seem to be trying to keep and get rid of in the earlier stages also appear to be used in the final.
We are into the realms of pure speculation here, because it’s only singoffs that can keep us grounded in reality in our attempts to read producer intentions. When we write that it seems clear that the show is trying to get rid of an act, and that act lands in the singoff, we can be disproved if the act is saved.
There is no such reality check when it comes to decoding intentions in the final. We can never know if our reading was correct.
Nonetheless, it’s fun to speculate, both beforehand and with the benefit of hindsight. Readers of Sofabet during the 2010 season will know that our reading was that producers would have ideally liked One Direction to win but decided to make a last-ditch try for a Rebecca Ferguson win in the final having concluded that One Direction wasn’t possible. As we wrote in the first of our pieces reviewing the 2010 season once we had the voting statistics to hand:
a strong piece of evidence that producers were still hoping to get Matt beaten on the day of the final was the absence of a “contestant’s favourite” round – which had happened in the previous two years – in which each act reprised a favourite song from the live shows. That would have given Matt the chance to sing ‘First Time’ again, and his week 5 voting performance suggests that would have made him unbeatable.
We also interpreted the running order (Matt on first, Rebecca last) in this way, and the choice of Christina Aguilera as Rebecca’s duet partner – singing ‘Beautiful’, which fitted her narrative arc of journeying to self-confidence – as an attempt to recreate the kind of magic moment with Beyonce which helped Alexandra Burke over the line in 2008. (Unfortunately for Rebecca, she fluffed it).
Sofabet wasn’t around in 2009, but our sense of that final is that programme makers had probably accepted by the time of the final that Joe had unstoppable momentum (he had stormed the vote in weeks 7, 8 and 9) and embraced this by giving him the pimp slot.
In 2008, as mentioned, the duet with Beyonce appeared to be a huge help for Alexandra – especially in comparison with pairing JLS with Westlife – and this was compounded by giving Alexandra the pimp slot. The voting figures showed that JLS had won the week 9 semi-final, so it would presumably have been conceivable for programme-makers to have pushed them forward instead of Alexandra had they wanted to.
In 2007, Rhydian Roberts went into the final as a long odds-on favourite and was given the pimp slot. The show didn’t release voting figures for this or previous series, so we don’t know how votes had stacked up in previous weeks, but we’d be amazed if programme-makers had wanted any outcome other than a Rhydian win. The Welsh showman would surely have been a better ambassador for the X Factor brand than rabbit-in-headlights Scottish warbler Leon Jackson.
Likewise, we find it hard to believe that programme-makers would have been ambivalent between a win for Leona Lewis and Ray Quinn in 2006.
On the question of the running order at this late stage of proceedings, there was some discussion in the comments after last weekend as to whether it might actually have been intended to help Little Mix’s vote to put them on first, rather than a sign of confidence that they didn’t need help, given that the phone lines opened after the first set of songs. It’s a nice theory, but we think history doesn’t back it up.
In previous series’ shows with three or more contestants singing twice, the first act to sing has been eliminated ten times and the last act to sing only four times. That strongly suggests to us that producers perceive it to be an advantage to sing last rather than first, even when lines open after the first set of songs.
The identity of the acts eliminated after singing last in these circumstances also points this way – Cher in 2010 in the four-act final, Katie Waissel in 2010 in the seven-act quarter-final, Danyl Johnson in 2009 in the four-act semi-final, and Ben Mills in 2006 in the three-act semi-final were acts the show generally seemed to be hoping to help, not hinder.
In sum, we are expecting producers to do their best for Little Mix in the final – though not to the extent of actively stitching up the other acts too badly. It’s an acceptable compromise in entertainment terms to nobble one-sixth or one-tenth of your acts by making sure they’re too boring to motivate votes, but not two-thirds of your acts in the show’s grand finale.
Two closing thoughts. Is it purely a coincidence that of the show’s seven winners, it’s the two girls who can be considered successes while Matt Cardle is showing every sign of joining the other four males in the not-so-successful category – and conversely, of the commercially successful acts who have been beaten, more are male? If there a non-coincidence explanation, we can’t think of one.
Second, if you’ve not been following Richard’s hilarious red and black day over at betsfactor, we highly recommend you do so (recall Richard’s theory is that red and black in performance staging indicate a vote-dampening intention; after some querying of this at the weekend, it’s a theory he is today testing to destruction).
As ever, your thoughts on all the above are warmly welcomed in the comments box below.