X Factor 2011 Review Part 6 – What Changes to Make for X Factor 2012?

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

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.

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25 comments to X Factor 2011 Review Part 6 – What Changes to Make for X Factor 2012?

  • Boki

    Hi Daniel,

    From a viewer point of view almost all of the ideas would obviously help to save the show imo. To put it very simple in a few words – make it more fair. I’m only not sure about the twists (besides Amelia which seemed to be last minute disgrace) – I would keep them to keep people guessing which could be a good thing (but the problem is to re-invent the new ones all the time).

    From a punter point of view I’m thinking the other way around. Remove the damn twists to make life simpler but what about the manipulation? Wouldn’t the public running order draw decrease our judgements who is wanted and who is not? Wouldn’t the fairness and more talent between contestants make the things more unpredictable? Well, I don’t have answers to that cause I’m again hitting my non-existing x-fac history issue (it’s a nice excuse isn’t it 🙂 ).

    Btw it’s hard to concentrate again on the subject since I switched my mind to ESC and already involved a little in MGP. Props to Andrew for the previous articles, Part 5 was especially interesting, I always wandered how those people work.

  • annemarie

    Agree with all your points, Daniel. The show does need re-vamping to make it fairer. I agree especially with the point about the contestants playing instruments, if they can. It would add more interest and variety to the show generally.

    To add to your list: if the viewer is to be involved in voting for the contestants and paying to vote then the contestant that is the bottom of the vote each week should be eliminated. This is what happens in Strictly Come Dancing and is seen to be fairer. Saving Misha when she was bottom of the vote three times, in retrospect, could be viewed as a farce. Now the voting figures have been released I can only think that this revelation may damage Misha’s long term popularity. The competition progress of Kitty, Sophie and Janet was sacrificed for Misha and who knows what long term damage has been done to the careers of these three also and others like them. The ability of the judges to save their preferred contestant is damaging to the contestants all round. It is supposed to create interest but seems to ends up causing hostility and cries of unfairness. As you say, the bottom line of the show is that it should be about TALENT and if a viewer’s favoured contestant loses fairly in the vote, then so be it!

  • Daniel

    Hi Boki and annemarie,

    Boki, I agree that the changes I suggest don’t make it easier for punters, but better an adapted X Factor than no X Factor at all, which is the danger within a few years. Bringing back juries to Eurovision was similarly unhelpful for my betting but important for its long-term health. Punters learn to adapt. By the way, our Eurovision coverage will begin tomorrow 🙂

    In responding to your point annemarie, I agree that the Strictly method of elimination gives a greater sense of fairness. We’ll see how much being bottom of the vote and saved on three separate occasions will impact Misha’s career. I’m not sure people will think about her in such terms – the ‘bully’ tag is far easier to remember, however.

  • justin

    Daniel, great post.

    I agree with all you say especially with regard to more audience participation.

    On your ‘judges need to judge’ point I think it became even more apparent this year to the casual viewer that the judges comments were pre-scripted. Often the comments bore no resemblance whatsoever to what the viewers had just seen. Restoring credibility to the show must include revision of this practice. Great for betting of course – bad for longevity of the show.

    I await with great anticipation the first of the Eurovision posts. I believe the first draw for the semis is in the next couple of days (I think this is just to decide which semi and which half of the draw – but I am sure you will inform us!).

    • Daniel

      Hi Justin, you are correct on what is to be decided at the first Eurovision draw, which will take place at 1530GMT this Weds. We will put an initial reaction up here on Sofabet. Tomorrow we’ll start our Eurovision coverage with a look back at the pre-rehearsal articles from last year, comparing our selective country-by-country analysis with how they actually got on. I look forward to your comments – you really switched me on to the opportunities offered by the Greek entry last year, for which many thanks.

  • Dug

    I agree. Producers will hopefully have noticed that controversy equaled negativity in X Factor 2011. The twists, turns and backstage drama may have generated headlines but they left a sour taste in the mouths of contestants and viewers alike.

    I imagine this year’s gang will be trudging its way through the tour rather begrudgingly: Kitty getting egged by Misha’s ‘aliens’, Craig refusing to go on first and Janet refusing to go on at all. About seventeen hands will shoot up when The Risk are called to stage and Marcus will still be grinning away, convinced he has a chance of ‘winning’ (if only he can get that whoop just right).

    It may seem unimportant to worry about that lot now that they’re done with. However, they are the show’s output and a goose is only as good as its golden eggs (or else it must be fattened up for Christmas dinner). Take what you will from that metaphor – I’m sure it had some relevance when it first entered my head. The point is, the overall ‘output’ is a combination of public perception and marketable talent and this time around that output looks negative.

    So I agree that the controversy and negativity need to be toned down. I can’t however say the same about manipulation.

    The X Factor survives on manipulation. Not only does it ensure a more entertaining series, it ensures a more marketable musical output. Year after year, we have seen the public get behind boring acts like Leon and Joe or ‘authentic musicians’ like Matt and Janet who bore pop fans and leave the indie/folk markets underwhelmed.

    It’s a good time for proper pop at the moment – the biggest selling artists are Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. This is part of the reason that it made sense, nearly a decade on from the advent of Girls Aloud, to push a girlband for the win. Unfortunately, the general incompetence of Syco means that the girls will probably end up duetting with Jessie J on some cringeballad or other rather than getting in the studio with Xenomania ASAP and producing some great pop anthems for the onesies (what are we calling this era?)

    If the X Factor wants to drag itself from the quagmire of disrepute, it needs to focus on doing what it does best: creating genuine popstars. If The Voice is all about serious musicianship then X Factor needs to be about serious showmanship. I think that producers should avoid throwing any quirky voices or guitars in the mix unless they are positive that they want that contestant to succeed over and above the more marketable pop/urban acts. In short, manipulation is key to profitable output. To do away with manipulation, the show would need to eliminate the Devlins and the Cardles before the lives.

    The judging panel needs some serious consideration as well. I think it’s likely that we might see improvement here in the same year that BGT receives a line-up boost. Never mind the contestants, Kelly Rowland was wildly mis-cast in her role and seemed completely at odds with her responsibilities by the end of 2011. Similarly, Gary was a disaster in my eyes. Where Simon would lean back, chew his pen and speak in a sort of offensively sexy string of nonchalant insults, Gary seemed to moan in a style that reeked of deep-seated resentment for Robbie Williams.

    It’s not at all surprising that 2011 saw a higher proportion of rating for the audition stages. The ‘journey’ of the show seems increasingly skewed. Auditions are met with tears and standing ovations from the judges but then follows a barrage of negativity that builds up to the later weeks and only relents in the final by which time we, the audience, have been convinced that nobody deserves to win the thing.

    • Dug

      I should add that I certainly think that the perception of manipulation needs to be toned down. The manipulation itself needs to take on new forms – something a little less obvious than judges arguments and running order. Perhaps it will become more apparent in the production (which I think should be BIG, BIG BIG by the way)

  • lolhart

    Daniel, I think your suggestions are great, especially about audience participation and the running order. I’m not sure if the production team would be happy about giving up control to that extent. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by what they hope to gain from manipulating the show as in recent years. For example, would it really have mattered if Cher Lloyd hadn’t made the final in 2010? Syco were clearly planning to sign her anyway and it hasn’t stopped them picking up Astro in the US version.

     I actually think they should reveal before the sing-off who came bottom of the public vote out of the two acts. It would mean the judges would have to justify why they are saving the least popular contestant when casting their vote. I would have also added to your list, spreading out the novelty acts among the four categories. The UK version of X-Factor is the only one I’ve seen where the Overs category is not taken seriously.

     I think the shape of this year’s X-Factor will depend to some extent on how successful The Voice is. If it does well in the ratings then the X-Factor may want to reclaim some of its supposed credibility as a talent show. After all, they ideally want an act who can sell records when the series is over. On the other hand the producers’ thinking in 2011 was so bizarre, I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt they had to ramp up the controversy even more. Contestants like Kitty make the show interesting when they can actually perform or sing well. Whereas Frankie’s performances didn’t even fall into the so bad they were good category.

  • Pauline

    Daniel, enjoyable piece. In my opinion 2011 has revealed that this show is one of appalling cruelty. How can you get the best from a singer by diminishing them every week,even when,as far as I could see,they were doing extremely well. I have often sat watching previous years thinking there was something wrong with me because the judges belittled an act which I thought was really good. 2011 has show how manipulative, nasty contriving and ugly this show really is. Your ideas seem to be pretty good, especially the running order one. Not sure about the mentors picking songs for the other mentors’ acts with the competitiveness there is between them. I would like to see them there as judges only. Your suggestion for the encouragement of talent and the contestants showing what talent they have regarding musical instruments is a good one. There is also another which is not my idea but that of Janet Devlin who suggested on one of her interviews that the contestants, whilst at the house, or wherever, should spend some time on writing a song of their own, which they would then sing during the show. Maybe this would be stretching some contestants too far, and limit the number of applicants, I don,t know. But then again, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I
    had to mention that, being such a Janet fan I want to give her credit. Having said all this, we all know that in the end Simon Cowell will do just as he wants. I don’t know whether I can bear to watch.

  • Noisy

    One suggestion for the producers for next year, if you’re going to have a Groups category, maybe have one or two of the groups who applied making it through to the voting shows!

    Oh and when you pick a theme, make the acts perform that style of song rather than just singing a ballad every week.

  • EM

    I don’t disagree with any of your points but the one thing the show is crying out for is talent. With a crop of 6 or 7 properly talented singers or groups the rest of the issues return to window dressing.

    Imagine them going into a year not caring too much about who wins because it’s obviously going to be someone with talent. The viewers will be many times more passionate about the show because they are seeing people with talent.

    A good singer goes? No matter they saved someone with talent. People can argue their favourite could have stayed but there’s no cry of fix because someone with talent beat them.

    The judges comments seem staged? Who’ll notice? We just care about the talent.

    They don’t stick totally to the theme or the theme has been done before? No worries the talent is belting out a great song in a fantastic way.

    Ok the talent management has to be right, the production needs to be good and the panto villains need to be there but if they actually found some proper talent it would be back to the number one show that everyone loves. The manipulation would seem less obvious.

    If we could order just one change this year it would be for them to go on a proper talent search. Not looking for the next Adele or The Wanted. I could have picked a much more talented top ten myself and I don’t have scores of researchers looking for me.

    What a revolution we’d have, a talent show featuring talent. It might work.

  • EM

    I’m all for having the Wagners and Frankies in to up the entertainment value. What I’m proposing is ditching the Sophies, Craigs, Suzies and all the other names I’ve forgotten because they’re not completely talented.

  • Pauline

    Janet Devlin X Factor UK. The controversy you will never be forgotten by…. That was the heading for http://www.break.com. An American guy called Tom Simon announcing his support for Janet after she was eliminated. Every comment I make I think is my last. But this guy brings everyone’s attention to the tag at the bottom of his blog, which is Sofabet.com The Princess Dianna of the X Factor. I knew that was a good analogy. It seems to have caught on. Sorry Daniel and Andrew. I will try to make this my final comment.

  • Really interesting to read the posts to date – sorry I’ve not been around so far.

    My main question from the first few posts is over Marcus (Revd Sunshine) bombing on Higher and higher. I agree that this was carefully done in the final, but I wonder about the first time he sang it. The producers realised they had to give him a pimp slot, probably reluctantly, and I wonder if they knew what they were doing all along – give him something he’ll love but which will turn off the viewers. Or just a cock up?

    On this article, I’d make one major change for 2012: scrap judges categories.

    Forget travelling round the world for judges houses. Instead get the judges in separate rooms, and they each pick ONE act from a category. So if they want to pick a Goldie or a Frankie they can, but it’s the judge’s only act in that category. Once they’ve picked, the 7 remaining acts in that category are sent to the next judge who picks 1, then 6 go on, and finally the 5 remaining acts fight it out for the last place with the final judge.

    So every judge has a boy, a girl, a group and an over. Then see this as team Gary, team Louis etc. We should see team performances, possibly voting by teams, perhaps the teams living in separate houses. It would get rid of joke categories, and would give a perception of being much fairer.

  • Nick D

    There’s one big change that I’d make which might add an extra dimension, and it affects the Groups category.

    Just ONE group to be made up of failed soloists – two male, two female. Members to be decided by public vote in an extra live show after Judges’ Houses, selected from the people who were rejected at Judges’ Houses. The resulting group will either be brilliantly good or brilliantly awful, and either way they’re stuck with each other – no changes of personnel once the lives proper have started.

    Also, plan for the semi-final to be choosing three finalists from five acts – then if there’s a drop-out midseries, it’s easy for the format to flex around it.

  • Donald

    Just catching up on reviews, all good and interesting as usual.
    Did anyone hear about the X-Factor act where one member was barely too young 2011 but producers were desperate to get them in and tried to make it happen?
    Be interesting to see what happens with them this year.
    First Eurovision.

  • Tom Simon

    Hello Im the American guy Tom Simon. You can find that video by searching my Channel youngstersasha on youtube. It is called Janet Devlin X Factor UK The Controversy .here is the link http://youtu.be/b7KCaO1AqLw

  • Nia

    Totally agree with tpfkar’s comment from Jan26. Have said for a long time that Judges should have one act from each category. This is the future for X factor.

  • R

    Just a quick link to an old 2009 Pete Waterman interview.

    3.00 mins onwards is interesting as he discusses some of the methods used to manipulate voting.

  • Perhaps they read suggestion 3 this year…

  • eurovicious

    Coming back to this piece halfway through this year’s series, I couldn’t agree more with it. This is why I’m not enjoying it this year – instead of taking heed of this, they’ve moved in the opposite direction.

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