Here we go again. X Factor revs into gear for its tenth series this Saturday. In an attempt to halt declining ratings, producers have been tinkering with the bodywork. Whether the spluttering engine will be appreciably better is open to question.
Sharon Osbourne replaces Tulisa on the panel; behind-closed-doors auditions are back, alongside arena tryouts; there’s a Saturday-Sunday double bill every weekend; and reportedly a change to the voting format, the implications of which we consider in our final point below.
Here are some other things to bear in mind before the series kicks off.
1. The early bird…
It’s worth reading our auditions preview from last year as most of the points still stand. The frontloading of the audition shows held again last year. Ella and Jahmene in week 1; James, Rylan, Lucy and Kye in week 2. Previous year – Devlin, The Brucknell and Cocozza in show 1 (along with Goldie Cheung, who was supposed to have made it); Misha B, Craig Colton and Johnny Robinson in week 2.
2010 was the exception that proves the rule – only Katie Waissel from the first show made the lives (but surely Gamu and Shirleena were supposed to, before their wheels came off); Mary Byrne and Matt Cardle from 2. 2009 – Stacey Solomon, Joe McElderry, Jedward and Danyl Johnson from show 1, Jamie Archer from show 2.
The series returns later in 2013 than it has done in recent years. Scheduling opening episodes after the Bank Holiday weekend suggests producers are desperate to start with decent ratings. We can reasonably expect one or two of those heavily pimped in the opening weekend’s shows to be among plans for the latter stages.
2. Same old stories
According to our sources at this year’s auditions, you can expect the usual mix of standing ovations for “world-class performances”, clashing judges, wacky eccentrics and vocal car crashes. The acoustic guitar that became a feature of 2012 was also much in evidence.
In other words, it sounds like the same old same old. And that means it should be worth looking out for producers’ usual tropes. As has been hotly debated in our comments section in the past, comparing contestants across years is something that has to be done with caution. Nonetheless, we do consistently see producers setting up certain tried-and-trusted trajectories.
Take one example: the divisive/pantomime act, performed with aplomb by Rylan Clark last year. While there are salient differences between Rylan and those who have previously fulfilled a similar function – Katie Waissel, Wagner, Jedward, Chico et al – there are also some commonalities. Broadly, the set-up is for a transition from love-to-hate to love-to-watch. It’s worth remembering just how unsympathetic and untalented Rylan was made out to be in his audition segment; a year on, he returns as an Xtra Factor reporter having won Celebrity Big Brother.
So don’t dismiss the possibility of an apparently poor and controversial auditionee evolving into a major plank of the series – a narrative arc usually involving a bottom two appearance and controversial rescue, and leading ultimately to redemption.
3. Same old faces
Not only are many of the stories the same, some of the personnel are too. Last year there was a greater focus on returning rejects, such as Jade Richards and Melanie McCabe (the idea isn’t new, as Alexandra Burke proved). Of all the boomerangs, the one they settled on for the live shows was singing contest veteran Carolynne Poole, whose week 1 departure showed her to be a misguided choice.
Does this mean all this year’s repeat chancers will be fobbed off before the live shows, or will they dare put through any of the likes of Joe Whelan, Amy Mottram, Terry Winstanley, Melanie McCabe and Rough Copy (who reportedly suffered another visa hiccup)?
4. The judging line-up
In hindsight, there was significance in last year’s decision to switch Nicole’s and Gary’s seating positions, so that the former occupied the alpha position to the viewers’ right long kept warm by Simon Cowell’s butt. Does Nicole keep her prime place after managing strong reviews and mentoring gold in 2012?
Will Gary do better than hyping the likes of Frankie Cocozza, Carolynne Poole and Kye Sones? He looked an isolated figure at times last year, but remains the alpha male judge. Louis is the returning court jester. It’s reported to be his last series, but the giggling provocateur-in-chief has comeback queen Sharon Osbourne as well as the former Take That frontman to annoy.
It’s been reported in the tabloids that Gary has been given the groups and Nicole the girls – the categories that have produced the most commercially viable acts from the franchise. Apparently Louis has the boys and Sharon the overs.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will producers allow Sharon at least one plausible contender for the win, in what is traditionally the weakest category? Does giving the boys to Louis indicate that producers have a suitably controversial character in mind for him, or merely that they’d like to scupper the category given that it won last year and has won three of the last six series?
And will the groups be Borelowed in the same way the overs were last year? It may be no bad thing if Gary’s calming influence at least puts the kibosh on the farcical personnel changes that often take place between auditions and live shows, as with 2011’s revolving door on The Risk and 2012’s rebranding of Triple J to Union J.
The voting system reportedly changes this year. There’s a “flash” vote after the performances, and by the end of the Saturday show we know who’s finished bottom of the vote. That act will be in the bottom two, and will be the one to go if the judges are deadlocked. Then there’s more voting to determine which other act – announced on the Sunday show – is also in the bottom two.
We’re assuming the thinking here is that it will likely lead to one or two ratings-boosting midseries shockers. Presumably the week 7 Sunday show would have been much more hotly-anticipated last year, for example, if they’d announced on the Saturday that Ella was bottom of the vote. Ditto Cher Lloyd in week 7 in 2010, or Misha B in week 4 in 2011.
But, against that, there’s the loss of suspense in the deadlock situation – no more waiting for Dermot to announce the name. We’re surprised producers are willing to lose that little element of drama.
We’re even more surprised that they’re willing to tie their hands in situations where they have a serious-but-dispensable act bottom of the vote and a would-like-to-save-but-would-be-controversial novelty act second bottom. The time-honoured path has been for a judge to agonise then say “you know what, I’m going to let the public decide”, and pull a surprised face when the novelty act stays – recall Louis Walsh saving Rylan Clark over Carolynne Poole, and Simon Cowell saving Jedward over Lucie Jones. Those saves would have been harder to pull off if we’d known in advance that deadlock would have meant Carolynne and Lucie departing.
There is also a worry that this change may lead to some very predictable Sunday shows, and hence very dull elimination markets. When producers seem clearly to be gunning for an act, and then we find out at the end of the Saturday show that they’ve succeeded in getting that act to the bottom of the vote, where’s the suspense? Think of the likes of Jade Ellis in week 4 last year, or Nu Vibe in week 2 in 2011, or Belle Amie after their coffins in 2010. If we’d known at the end of the Saturday show that they were bottom of the vote, they would surely have been long odds-on throughout the Sunday.
Indeed, last year, in each of weeks 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8, the bottom act was one that seemed clearly to have been treated as being on the “disposable list” (MK1, Jade Ellis, Kye Sones, D3 and Rylan Clark respectively). There would have been fewer variables to entertain ourselves with debating on a Sunday afternoon.
There is also the question of whether the short voting window might work to the advantage or disadvantage of certain kinds of act. Rob at entertainmentodds.com suggests it “will certainly motivate tweenies in their support of boy bands or solo male heart-throbs”. We’re not so sure it’ll make much difference – if an act is weak enough to be in danger of hitting the bottom, will shorter voting necessarily save them? Time will tell.
What are you most looking forward to as the X Factor returns to our screens? Do let us know below. We’re eagerly anticipating being back in the early part of next week with our review of the first weekend’s audition shows.