Simon Cowell was in the papers on Friday admitting he had been “too cocky” in 2011, and “got a big wake-up call” from setbacks such as the drop in X Factor’s ratings compared with the year before and against its BBC rival, Strictly Come Dancing.
Actually, the tabloid interview was largely taken up with plugging the latest series of Britain’s Got Talent, for which auditions are just beginning, with Cowell returning to the judging panel. On the topic of X Factor, all he had to say was that, “We’ll see what changes we make to the US X Factor, then we’ll see what we do to the UK X Factor.”
This is hardly a sign that he is prioritising or planning wholesale reform of the British talent contest. Which it needs, because based on the 2011 series here in the UK, X Factor is otherwise in danger of a Big Brother-esque terminal decline. Whilst ratings held up in historical terms, more importantly in the longer term, the show’s credibility did not.
With the BBC’s The Voice promising to re-invigorate the singing talent contest format in spring 2012, what reforms should Cowell think about making to X Factor? Broadly speaking, the show needs to go back to basics, with a decrease in producer manipulation and increase in viewer participation. Here are our ideas of what we’d do with X Factor 2012.
1. No Twists
This is a controversial concept for a show that has spent the last few years teasing viewers with last-minute changes to the line-up of finalists, and kept us hanging on over single or double eliminations. But we have two points to make on the subject. Firstly, viewers have now seen 12 finalists become 16 in 2010 and 16 become 12 in 2011. We’ve grown tired of these shenanigans. Secondly, the damage they do to the show’s long-term credibility is now greater in impact than the short-term headlines gained. Case in point? Amelia Lily.
2. A Public Draw for the Running Order
What better way to indicate that the show is treating its contestants fairly than having them draw lots on the Xtra Factor Sunday programme for running order slots the following week? This would provide an exciting segment in itself and show that producers are toning down their manipulation. Because it’s not just Sofabet and its canny commenters who know how the running order has been used to stitch contestants up. The contestants themselves seem increasingly aware of it too – you only have to remember Craig Colton’s demeanour in the week he was dunked.
3. Make it More About Talent
I know, radical for a talent contest, right? There’s a distinct lack of musical credibility on that stage. How to change this? Firstly, we need more musical instruments. Matt Cardle’s ability to play the guitar was one of his best selling points. Viewers appreciated it. Janet Devlin did not get the same chance. So if they can play the guitar or the piano, let’s see them do it. Secondly, strip back the over-production so we can hear them sing. Not just Little Mix, but The Risk were occasionally drowned out by backing tracks in 2011, not to mention One Direction in 2010. Last but not least, make sure there are more decent singers among the finalists, by casting more effectively at the audition stage.
4. Less Negativity
Related to the final point above, by giving us a less talented set of finalists in 2011 than may otherwise have been the case, producers proceeded to compound their error by turning against some of the exceptions, notably Misha B with bullygate and the repeated assertions that Janet Devlin was boring. We asked at the time, what encouragement did this give viewers to tune in? Ultimately, damaging too many of the finalists with negative coverage can only rebound on the show by making us care less about the contestants and not necessarily doing much for their post-show careers either.
5. More Interesting Themes
The rock/motown/love week revolving door is old hat. Not even the show’s producers seemed to follow the prescriptions they themselves had set in 2011. Instead, how about making things a bit more quirky? Songs written by Canadians week, songs with a colour in the title week, a secret santa week where mentors pick a song for other mentors’ acts, or contestants pick their songs out of a hat – it’s their challenge to find an arrangement and style that makes it work. Should bring a welcome breath of fresh air to proceedings.
6. Judges Should be There Primarily to Judge
Another radical concept. The pantomime arguments between the panel have long been a staple of the show. Who can forget Sharon Osbourne throwing her glass of water over Louis Walsh? We can’t be the only ones to have completely tired of these charades, and the way they deflect attention away from the performers and their performances. The most popular judge with fans – Dannii Minogue – was the one who largely kept out of these squabbles and was perceived to be the fairest in her critiques. Producers may like to think about that when choosing their panel for 2012.
7. More Viewer Involvement
How about going further to encourage viewer participation? This is a no-brainer for a show that’s based on viewer votes and supposed to be in tune with the social media age. It helps generate interest. So why not online voting for the next week’s theme? Or one week where acts’ songs are chosen by online vote, as they successfully managed in last year’s US X Factor.
We must stress that this is what we’d do if we were running the show, as a way of preventing the UK series from going into terminal decline. As you can see, it requires a complete change of ethos from a production team who in 2011 felt the need to ramp up controversy and manipulation in the hope of short-term ratings gains.
Without a change in ethos, many of these ideas are dead in the water. You Gov’s Joe Twyman in our recent interview raises the fear that they may go for the alternative – to make the controversies and twists even more extreme in an attempt to continue to shock viewers. In our view that would only hasten the format’s decline.
This is because reality show formats evolve positively or die. X Factor itself was a product of the death of Pop Idol. This format injected a new lease of life into the talent show, as its success around the world demonstrates. But it may crumble under the weight of its machinations and the viewer cynicism it engenders if there’s not a back to basics reboot.
What do you think? Would our ideas strip the show of some of its interest, or are they what X Factor needs to get back on track? What changes would you make, if any? Do let us know your ideas in the comments section below. This is the last of our 2011 review articles. From this coming week, our attention turns to Eurovision.