Sometimes we worry that our articles on Sofabet are not accessible enough to readers who are new to our way of viewing the show. For example, regular readers intuitively grasped from watching Saturday’s show that producers were trying to get Abi into the singoff. But perhaps it wasn’t obvious to the general viewer. Regular commenter Dean asked “Can someone do a breakdown of every tactic used to get rid of Abi? I will show it to my gf. She may believe me.”
With thanks to Dean’s girlfriend for the inspiration, we’re working on a newbie-friendly case study of Abi’s entire journey, to publish in a day or two. But first, we thought we’d do an article that goes right back to basics about how we watch the X Factor. If you have friends or family you want to initiate into the fun, we hope this will help.
Although we analyse the show from a betting perspective, we know many of our readers don’t bet – and we firmly believe that you don’t have to bet to enjoy our way of analysing and predicting the show. If you watch the X Factor purely as straightforward entertainment, you’re missing out on a whole other level of enjoyment to be derived from it. If you dismiss the X Factor as a fix, you’re missing out on analysing a fascinating battle of wills between producers and the voting public.
This article makes explicit our top five assumptions underlying how the X Factor works. Remember, these are assumptions, not assertions – as always, we may be wrong, and welcome your differing opinions in the comments section.
1. The show’s producers want certain acts to do well
Our starting point is the observation that people behind the X Factor also get to manage the acts commercially after the show. Therefore the show’s producers (sometimes colloquially referred to as “the powers that be”, or TPTB), would like to get the most commercially viable acts as far as possible in the competition, to give them the best launching pad for a post-show career. They want commercially viable acts in the final, and ideally to win it.
Unfortunately, they face a problem: if you were to draw a Venn diagram of the kind of people who vote in the X Factor, and the kind of people who buy music, the overlap would be small. Often, acts that naturally appeal to phone voters turn out to be disastrous commercially (think Joe McElderry, Leon Jackson). And often, acts who promise to be commercially lucrative can be a hard sell to phone voters (think One Direction).
This is where the fun comes from. Producers can’t just give every act a level playing field and see who does well, or they’d end up with a final packed with commercially disastrous propositions. They have to try to steer their chosen acts towards the final, and nobble acts who threaten to displace them.
2. The phone votes are scrupulously fair
We absolutely believe that the phone votes are fair. We have two compelling reasons for believing this. First, it would be insanely, suicidally risky for producers to attempt to interfere with the vote in any way – it would spell curtains for the show if they did this and were found out.
Secondly, there are plenty of examples of bottom twos which we believe the show would not have wanted (for example, Carolynne Poole and Rylan Clark in week 1 of 2012, both acts we believe the show intended to be around for the long term), and where the margins were so small it would probably have been trivially easy for them to get other acts in the singoff had they wanted to risk getting involved in the kind of vote-buying shenanigans that allegedly plague Eurovision.
The X Factor isn’t fixed. It’s steered – fallibly. That’s a totally different thing, and much more interesting.
3. Producers, not judges, make decisions
A superficial viewing of X Factor would lead you to believe that the judges choose their acts for the live shows, decide what to say in response to each audition and live show performance, and choose for themselves who they want to save in singoffs.
Our assumption is that this makes no sense. The judges are employees of the show. We assume that they, like any employee, will have some expectation of having their views taken into consideration in meetings – but that, ultimately, these decisions tend to be taken centrally, by the show’s producers.
To start with the auditions, the way the show is edited suggests that people turn up off the street, stand in a queue, and are ushered straight in front of the judges. Of course that’s not what happens – it would take far too much time. Instead, most acts are jettisoned after initial brief auditions in front of backstage production staff. Whether they walked in off the street or were invited to audition, acts who get in front of the judges are already known to producers. Producers will have primed the judges on what questions to ask, to elicit any sob story, and how to react to the audition.
Analysing the ways in which acts are presented during the audition stages can help us to identify which acts the show’s producers are hoping to turn into the stars of the series. How much screentime did their auditions get? Did they get a lot of filming backstage with Dermot, with friends and family, at home, doing their jobs? Does there appear to be an attempt to set up some kind of narrative “journey” for them to go on, such as having self-confidence issues to overcome?
As we get to bootcamp and judges’ houses, it beggars belief that judges and their celebrity helpers are solely resposible for choosing the acts in each category, in isolation from consideration of which acts will be on the other categories. This is an entertainment show, and it demands a balanced cast of 12 acts who will appeal to multiple demographics. You want a mix of commercially viable acts, feelgood vote-magnets, entertainers, and cannon fodder for the early weeks. We assume that casting decisions therefore surely have to be taken centrally.
In the live shows, who gets to survive a singoff is also a casting decision. We assume that judges save who producers want them to save.
The one area where we wonder how much scope there is for unplanned things happening is judges’ comments in the live shows. Things go wrong in live TV, and there are examples – such as the Misha B “bully” comments – which make no sense if they were planned, but make sense if they were accidentally blurted out in the heat of the moment. Generally, we would guess that judges’ comments are scripted in production meetings – whether in broad brushstrokes or word-for-word – but that sometimes the judges may extemporise, or banter may take an unexpected direction.
Of course, there is nothing to stop judges “going rogue” – saying things they’re not supposed to say, saving acts they’re not supposed to save. Nothing except, as with any employee, the threat of getting sacked and finding it hard to get another gig in the same industry.
You can never be absolutely sure if something was in the script or not. Gary’s non-critique of Sam Callahan last Saturday is the strongest case we can remember for believing that a judge has gone rogue. (Some astute judges in the Sofabet comments section disagree). We suspect the script called for him to deliver another withering attack on Sam’s relative lack of vocal prowess, thereby spurring Sam’s supporters to vote, keeping him safe, and generating controversy. Which brings us onto the next point.
4. Controversy = publicity = ratings = advertising revenue
Producers aren’t interested only in getting the most commercially viable act to the final. They also have to care about putting on good enough show to attract viewers. Advertising revenue is the show’s primary source of income – by our calculations, far outweighing revenue from phone votes – and how much advertisers are willing to pay depends on how good the ratings are.
That’s why most series contain some controversial acts – think Jedward, Wagner, Katie Waissel, Rylan Clark. Their purpose is twofold: to entertain through outlandish big productions, and to outrage when they outlast better singers. The show thrives on the kind of controversy that is generated when judges are shocked – SHOCKED – to find their competent but boring singers being outvoted by the novelty acts.
Producers generally do their best to help these kinds of act avoid singoffs, because it can be slightly uncomfortable when they have to save them – Simon Cowell’s and the show’s credibility among the more innocent segments of the viewing public took a bit of a knock with the singoff saves of Jedward over Lucie Jones and Rylan over Carolynne Poole, respectively.
When we get to the later stages of the show, there becomes more of a tension between the imperative to keep the entertaining acts around for ratings and to pack the final with acts who have a chance of post-show commercial success. Wagner’s trajectory – given every help for seven weeks, and ruthlessly cut down in week 8 – remains the textbook example.
5. Producers employ various tactics to motivate votes for their favoured acts, and demotivate votes for ones they want rid of
Analysing these tactics is what Sofabet does on a weekly basis, and it’s an understanding of these tactics that convinced regular readers that producers were trying to get Abi out from her treatment on Saturday. These tactics include the running order, song choice, how acts are portrayed in their VTs and in stories placed in the tabloids, staging and lighting, and judges’ comments.
In our forthcoming case study on Abi’s journey, we’ll explore the most important of these tactics in further detail.
There’ll be nothing new in the above points for our regular readers, but still we’d love to hear if you disagree with anything or if there are fundamental assumptions we’ve missed. For new readers, do check out the comments – the wisdom below the line on Sofabet dwarfs that above it – and, if you choose to get involved, you will find it a friendly and welcoming place.