X Factor 2011 Review Part 1 – How Little Mix Won: Extreme Nobbling

This is the first article in our review of the 2011 series. You can see our favourite ten posts of the 2011 series here.

Oh, the irony. In 2010, producers selected the ingredients of One Direction with the discerning care of a Michelin-starred restauranteur, and pushed them with the relentless unsubtlety of an award-winning timeshare salesman. Still they finished only third, prompting us to ask: Can a group ever win it?

In 2011, we got our answer. The constituents of Little Mix were apparently lobbed together because they were the same height, they were originally given a name nobody had bothered to Google, and producers didn’t appear to take a serious interest in them as potential winners until nearly halfway through the lives.

And they won. (Much to our surprise, having dismissed their chances in an article which we feature at the top of a list of our ten favourite posts of the 2011 series.)

How did that happen?

In the next article, we’ll justify our belief that the finger of fortune alighted upon Little Mix only in midseries, rather than them having been a masterplan from the getgo. Today we want to focus on a major part of the explanation for their success: The remarkable nobbling of every single one of their opponents.

Of course, the X Factor has never been a level playing field. That’s one of the things that makes it so much fun to punt on. Every series has featured acts who are blatantly favoured, and acts who are amusingly hung out to dry.

But 2011 saw the latter taken to a whole new level. Having previously seemed like gamekeepers who accepted the need to cull the weaker members of the herd, producers suddenly started behaving like a drunk with a machine gun.

The comparison with 2010 is instructive. In our review of the 2010 series, we explained why we thought producers would have preferred Matt Cardle not to win it; but equally, no serious attempt was made to nobble him – certainly not on the scale experienced by, say, Janet Devlin. (Interestingly, both Matt and Janet had been early leaders whose week 7 vote total was their weakest of the series. But whereas the kill on Janet was completed in her week 8, Matt was allowed to pull away again in his week 8 with a helpful running order slot and the much-praised ‘Nights In White Satin’.)

2010’s second-placed Rebecca Ferguson received nothing but helpful treatment throughout. The same, obviously, goes for One Direction. Producers couldn’t have done much more to help fourth-placed Cher, either – or, for that matter, seventh-placed Katie Waissel.

In other words, that’s five of the top seven in 2010 who were conspicuously not nobbled. It was only fifth-placed Mary Byrne and sixth-placed Wagner who experienced the kind of kneecapping which befell every single one of this year’s eliminees.

As we have documented elsewhere, Nu Vibe were strangled at birth. Sami Cruiseship walked the plank. Sophie Habibis was shot down. Week 5‘s double eliminees – The Risk and Johnny Robinson – had been strong seconds in weeks 2 and 3 respectively. Week 6 saw Kitty thrown under the chariot, and week 7 saw the dunking of Craig Biscuit. Janet Devlin’s death of a thousand cuts was completed in week 8.

The semi-final witnessed the eventual unplugging of Misha’s life support, which she had needed since being mortally wounded by the bullying accusations in week 3. The first leg of the final saw the de-ramping of Amelia which we had been awaiting every week since her comeback, with Louis and Tulisa pointedly reminding viewers that she’d taken a shortcut to Wembley.

That left just one act left to nobble – Marcus Collins. We documented on the Saturday of finals weekend how the running order and positioning of ad breaks had done him no favours. But it was nothing compared to what happened on the Sunday night. Producers showed they were willing to go further than seen before in previous finals to get the result they wanted.

Before you accuse us of favouritism towards Collins – our pre-lives selection – do read this wonderful dissection by Richard at Betsfactor, who was willing a Little Mix victory.

Going into the final Sunday, Marcus was not so far behind. With about two-thirds of the vote still to be cast after the Saturday freeze which saw Amelia’s elimination, Marcus would have needed just over 51% of them to overhaul Little Mix’s lead. This was far from an unclimbable mountain. At the same stage last year, Rebecca pulled back a 42/58 Saturday deficit with Matt to 49/51 on Sunday; a lesser turnaround would have done it for Marcus.

But producers had one last trick up their sleeve. They got Marcus to reprise ‘Higher and Higher’ as his performance of the series, while Little Mix reprised ‘Don’t Let Go’. It seemed like the obvious choice for the girlband, and a curious choice for Marcus: Why not ‘Reet Petite’, widely regarded as his standout performance?

When the voting statistics were revealed, we got our answer. Significantly, both of these choices came from week 7, when Marcus enjoyed the pimp slot with ‘Higher and Higher’ – a performance which led to him being lampooned for the closing crucifixion pose, and memorably described by Sofabet’s Dug as looking like “the Reverend Marcus Sunshine, inspirational leader of an inflatable pink church in America’s Deep South”.

Week 7 comparisonDug was absolutely spot on to have perceived that this staging was alienating to the voting public – as the graph shows, Marcus clocked his weakest relative vote of the entire series, with the exception of week 2’s dreadful ‘Russian Roulette’. From the pimp slot, that is quite some going. Meanwhile, it was Little Mix’s best vote of the series by some distance.

Not only that, because these performances took place in the same week, producers will have been able to make a direct comparison between the two. They will have known that Marcus got barely half the vote of Little Mix that week. So when they sent him out again with his pink suit and gospel choir and got the choreographers to tell him to do that Jesus thing at the end again, they will have known exactly what the effect on the vote was likely to be.

Would the cheerful Liverpudlian have won if he’d been allowed to reprise ‘Reet Petite’, which the graph shows – that’s his week 5 spike – was indeed his best vote-getter? We’ll never know. What we do know is that producers weren’t willing to take that chance.

And to make sure the Scouse lad was dead and buried, they had him sing ‘Last Christmas’ on stage alone with little production, effectively scalping him in front of the huge Wembley Arena audience. This kill is detailed fully in the Betsfactor article we referred you to earlier.

So now we have the answer to the question we asked this time last year, after One Direction’s failure – what would it have taken to get them over the line? As it happens, all the questions we asked were irrelevant. Regional base? Not really. Whip out a guitar? Nope. Find some way for the public to identify with all the individuals? Again, it proved not necessary – by the final, most viewers probably knew Little Mix’s members as the one who sings, the one who cries and the other two.

By focusing on what might be done differently with a group, we completely missed the key lesson: Nobble the group’s opponents! Six weeks worth of telling us how boring Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson were might just have done the trick.

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12 comments to X Factor 2011 Review Part 1 – How Little Mix Won: Extreme Nobbling

  • Tim B

    Great post! I too was mostly on Marcus for the final and was disappointed when Little Mix won. On the Saturday I was optimistic he could pull it off – the YouGov results were certainly very encouraging for us Marcus backers. What also led me to believe me that Little Mix would not win was the fact that viewers didn’t know their names in the same way that they did with One Direction. However, producers rectified this very effectively by placing them in jumpers with their NAMES on the front – clever!

    • Andrew

      Cheers, Tim! On the subject of YouGov we just interviewed their head of polling about how they do their X Factor polling – he gave us some very interesting insights, will post the interview later this week.

  • taichou

    yeah great analysis:) when Devlin was eliminated most of her support went to Littlemix as well, i wonder if she would be in final 4 taking Mishas place would Marcus even reach the final?

  • Matt

    Looks like you’ve stolen “the one who sings, the one who cries and the other two” from bitchfactor? I don’t think the producers were ever worried about Marcus winning, as he never topped a vote and was perilously close to the bottom 2 week 7 and 8 whereas Amelia, who whenever pulled off the best performance of the night topped the votes and looked like she was fishing in the same pool as LM for votes.

    • Andrew

      Hi Matt, it’s entirely possible we nicked that line from the wonderful Bitch Factor without remembering we’d read it there first – apologies and props to them if so
      http://thebitchfactor.blogspot.com/

      I do think we can deduce from Marcus’s treatment in the final weekend that they were worried about him, and from the closeness of the vote in the final that they were right to be worried – he wasn’t that far behind, so the nobbling wasn’t overkill. Which is remarkable in itself given, as you say, how mediocre his vote performance had been up till then.

  • Jack

    I’ve been waiting a while for the review!

    Good article, strange that they didn’t go for the kill with Matt last year, but I think it is entirely the new production crew. I think the old producers didn’t think they could getaway with nobbling Matt as it would have required consistent attack (like Janet this year).

    However, the new inexperienced producers thought they could get away with it and it was clear this is what they were doing in Week 8. The contrast in weeks between Matt and Janet is indeed interesting to note as Matt’s Week 8 made him, whilst Janet’s Week 8 broke her.

    • EM

      Or imagine the bollocking the new producers would get at the end of the series with low ratings, bad press AND Joe McElderry the second winning it.

      However they can now turn round and say ” we might have cocked a lot up but we got a group to win, not even you could manage that”!

      • Pauline

        I don’t think they broke Janet. She was manoeuvred out of the way because they couldn’t break her. See favourite posts No.4.
        A ‘spot on’ analogy.

    • Andrew

      Sorry it took us a while, Jack! I think you must be right about the new production team, in general they seemed more gung-ho about the negative stuff. I suppose it must be more fun for them. 😉

      Ironically it was arguably the cocking up of so many other things along the way – not least the initial casting, on which more later in this review series – that serendipitously cleared the field for the group to win it.

  • I didn’t watch the 2010 series apart from the final, but reading this retrospectively (in preparation for this year – as Misha says, fail to prepare = prepare to fail) is very interesting. I enjoyed last year’s series (because of the acts) but I can see why so many people didn’t (because of the manipulation). I only started watching at Live Show 4 last year and while I caught up on auditions, bootcamp and judges houses at the time, I’ve only now just caught up on Live Shows 1-3 – the prime nobbling weeks. And what I saw completely chimed with everything that’s been said on this site: Nu Vibe, Sami (<3) and Sophie really were nobbled in the early weeks, particularly Sophie whose VT every week deliberately screamed "BORING" at the viewer. By getting her (and to a lesser extent Janet) to repeatedly deny that they're boring/quiet etc. (including to a panel of ugly-mug journalists, which I found quite jarring), it merely drove the message home. Kitty's VTs and jury comments repeatedly focused on her "personality" (message: she's weird), Johnny's performances were almost all (fun) pantomime instead of the ballads he does so well (message: I'm a joke act), and the popular Janet was deramped halfway through. The Risk were deramped but whether the show intended to lose them that week is open to debate, they were definitely considered disposable by that point though. Then there's the cunning choice of LM's and Marcus's week 7 songs, as clinically outlined above, which speaks volumes. As for Craig, I love him but I think his relatively gentle nobbling was fair enough, he'd been pimped and supported a lot but remained pretty constant at around 5th-6th in the ranking, so by the week he left, he'd reached the end of his natural course, nobbling or no nobbling. It was fair enough to drop him – he'd come as far as he could. Ditto Amelia.

    Obviously Frankie was completely miscast. Don't know what they were thinking – he just could not sing. And we even had Gary, head judge and supposedly a credible musician, coming out with absurd hyperbole about him like "You're the one to beat in this competition". The public rightly never remotely bought it and it beggars belief to think the show thought they might. As to Janet, she should have been treated more like her fellow contestants right from the start, instead of the heavy promotion early on, and she shouldn't have been cut down in the way she was. In terms of manipulation though, what struck me most were Gary's comments to Frankie in week 3: "When I decided to sit in this seat, there was one thing I promised myself I'd never do, was lie. And I lied for you last weekend – I said your performance was good last weekend, and it wasn't, it was AWFUL." That deramping by way of shockingly honest admission really laid bare to me the manipulative nature of the show. (And I don't like it.)

    Finally, while analysing the show's narrative is indispensible, I think it's important to intermittently remind ourselves not to be too overly conspiratorial about X Factor. It is steered, but it's not controlled – and while I'd agree with the consensus that certain things like running order, VTs and staging are highly steered, I think the judges have a lot more freedom in their comments than some people assume (despite what I wrote about Gary's "lie" admission above). I dunno, maybe I'm naive or coming at this too fresh, but I think with the exception of certain scripted arguments and specific points the show wants to put across via one of the judges, a lot of what they say is sincere – partly because I often find myself reacting in exactly the same way. Louis is the least sincere and I think the show uses him in this way, both as a point of conflict for staged arguments and to ramp/deramp contestants, but to a large extent I think Tulisa, Kelly and Gary pretty much said what they thought last year, within a certain framework of course.

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