[With the X Factor back on our screens, we’re delighted to present a guest post by Joy Leahy, statistics PhD student at Trinity College Dublin and part-time lecturer at Dublin City University and Institute of Technology Tallaght. Joy brings academic rigour to some common subjects for Sofabet discussion: the correlation between the public vote and factors such as the running order in live shows, the sympathy bounce, and the amount of screentime in auditions – Daniel.]
X Factor has had a huge influence on modern music since it began twelve years ago. Successful contestants have gone on to release 37 UK number ones, including seven Christmas numbers ones. It has given us superstars such as Leona Lewis and One Direction, but most importantly the show itself has given us many hours of entertainment. The tears, the drama, the sob stories, and the occasionally decent singing have succeeded in ruining Saturday nights for millions of boyfriends across the country! Of course, what keeps the nation gripped is that the public controls the fate of X Factor contestants… or do they?
In one of the most dramatic moments of the 2015 series, contestant Mason Noise got into a heated argument with show boss Simon Cowell, as Noise criticised the lack of air time his audition received in comparison to other contestants. We were shown a 47 second clip of Noise. In comparison, fellow contestant Anton Stephans received 10 times as much airtime, when we learned about his past career as a backing singer and even met his incredibly adorable dog Honey! In fact, by my stopwatch, Honey had approximately the same amount of airtime as Noise. But did this disadvantage Noise? The answer lies in a careful analysis of the show’s statistics.
X Factor doesn’t release any data during the series with regards to voting results. This adds to the suspense of who will finally be crowned the winner and perhaps also ensures that people will continue voting for their favourites, instead of those hovering near the bottom. From 2008, changes to OFCOM rules meant that X Factor UK released the exact percentage of the vote received by each X Factor contestant by week at the end of each series. This makes for a data set ripe for statistical analysis, as it allowed me to analyse the last eight years of voting data in depth. Contestant finishing order was also available on Wikipedia.
I had a fun number of days looking back over past X Factor episodes to find out how long each contestant’s first audition was. I excluded groups which were manufactured or altered on the show (One Direction, Little Mix etc) as these did not actually have a first audition and I didn’t want this to skew the data. I then calculated what percentage of the average airtime each contestant received within each series. For example, Mason had 14% of the average, while Anton had 138% of the average. On that basis alone I think I might have been annoyed too.
Lasting First Impressions
I first looked at whether we could use the first audition time to predict the position in which the contestant would finish. I used a general linear model with finishing position dependent on time and found it to be a significant explanatory variable. We can see this plotted in figure 1 which clearly shows a trend-line indicating that the longer airtime in the initial segment does in fact predict a higher finishing position.
I next broke this down per week to see if we could predict the percentage vote per week based on the first audition time. As the percentage share of the vote is only available from series five, I restricted my data to look at series five to series twelve. Figure 2 shows the voting share in week one versus the proportion of first audition airtime for each contestant. We can clearly see a trend line showing that first audition and airtime are positively correlated.
I ran a linear regression as follows:
Voting Percentage = β0 + First Audition Airtime
Here the percentage of the vote that each contestant receives is based on the airtime of the first audition and some other unknowns β0. We now need to figure out how much is based on each. Results of the regression for each week are shown in table 1.
Table 1: Regression Results: Airtime vs Vote Share
For week one a contestant whose first audition is not shown is expected to get 39% of the mean vote. For every extra average first audition airtime they are expected to receive an extra 62% of the mean vote. Therefore, if a contestant’s first audition airtime is twice as long as the average they will be expected to receive 163% of the mean vote. Note that for each week the β0 and airtime should sum to approximately one, since if all contestants were equal we would expect them all to receive the mean vote. First audition airtime seems to be important for the first four weeks of the show, but perhaps on a decreasing scale week by week. After this time, it seems that the public are not as influenced by the initial impression, as it gets diluted by more recent performances. However, we can’t say for certain whether it still makes a difference in the later stages of the show as the number of data points are decreasing each week.
Of course, it is highly likely that the producers will have a good idea of which contestants will be popular and therefore allocate more airtime to contestants who would have attracted a higher percentage of the vote even with equal first auditions. However, it does appear that the early rounds of voting are impacted by first audition. This can be seen by anecdotal evidence for Only the Young, Olly Murs, JLS and Fleur East who all had less than average airtime for their first audition, but whose popularity grew as the competition went on, presumably due to strong performances or likeable personalities. It seems plausible that even if a contestant is quite weak, having a long first audition could build up enough support to see the act through the early weeks while viewers are still trying to distinguish between the better singers who have still not shown their personality.
A Hard Act to…Precede
However, there must be other things the producers can do to influence voting. After all, not everyone watches or even remembers the earlier rounds of the competition. Page and Page analysed rankings from both Pop Idol and X Factor in various countries from 2002-2007. They showed that the running order of the show influences the voting, with contestants performing later in the show more likely to rank higher in the voting. However, they did not have the benefit of the exact voting percentages we have today.
Firstly, I analysed the impact of position by looking at the exact voting numbers. I grouped all weeks which had each contestant singing once. As there was a differing number of contestants in each show I used percentage position in the show instead of absolute position. The result for each contestant was calculated as follows:
(percentage of average vote received in current week)/(average of percentage of average vote received in all previous weeks) × 100%
My results agreed with Page and Page that the later contestants more likely to get a higher percentage of the vote.
A plot of result vs position is shown in figure 3.
An interesting sidenote is the outlier coloured in red. This is Rachel Adedeji in week three. Adedeji received a measly average of 34% of the mean vote in weeks one and two but received 154% of the mean vote in week three. So what is happening here? Perhaps this could be explained by a so-called voting “bounce”. While the public are not aware of the exact voting breakdown, they do know who was in the bottom two sing off each week. The theory is that the saved act will receive a higher percentage of the vote the following week as the public know that they are in need of votes to stay in the competition. While this is an extreme example of the “bounce” I think this also needs to be included in the model.
I also wanted to investigate if strategic placing of contestants relative to each other impacts voting. I looked at the average amount of previous votes that the contestant immediately before (named “Before”) and after (“After”) received. I ran another linear regression with position, Before and After in the model, as well as the “bounce”.
Result vs Expected = β0 + Position + Before + After + Bottom 2
Here we think that the voting percentage will be based on your position, the strength of the contestant before you and the strength of the contestant after you, whether you were in the bottom two the previous week, as well as other unspecified factors known as β0.
You can compare regression models using the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). This compared the goodness of fit of each of the models, while penalising overly complex models. The statistical package R has a useful Step AIC function to help identify the best model. This concluded that we should keep the terms “Position”, “After” and “Bottom2” in our model. This means that it doesn’t really matter who performs before an act, but a good contestant performing immediately afterwards can really hurt the preceding contestant’s chances.
Result vs Expected = β0 + Position + After + Bottom 2
The results are shown in table 2.
Table 2: Regression Results: Expected results
Before accounting for other factors in the model, a contestant performing last will be expected to receive 121% (72%+49%) of their otherwise expected vote. Being before a contestant who got the mean vote will lose you 7% of your otherwise expected vote. If you were in the bottom two the previous week you should expect an increase of 40% of your otherwise expected vote.
It would have been interesting to include initial airtime in this model as well. However, as I was comparing voting numbers from previous weeks it would not have made sense to include it as initial airtime would have been accounted for within each week of voting.
There are a number of other factors under the producers’ control that could also influence the voting. Song choice, emotional stories leaked to the press, judges’ comments and overall airtime are all example of factors that could be worth analysing. However, this analysis indicates that the producers have the ability to influence voting.
The Hidden Factor
So can we identify any contestants who were sabotaged? Well it’s hard to say for certain, especially in the first few weeks when we have very few data points for each contestant. However, out of all the contestants in my analysis who made it on the live tour (i.e. final seven or eight) Mason Noise came out worst in the running order (position and contestant after him). In addition, he had to sing Justin Beiber’s “Sorry” to the audience on the first live show and every night on the X Factor tour. So what can we learn from this? It seems it’s quite bad to have a short first audition airtime, but given the potential tricks up the sleeves of the producers, it is even worse to make an enemy of Simon Cowell!
Page L, Page K. Last shall be first: A field study of biases in sequential performance evaluation on the Idol series. Journal of economic behavior and organization. 2010 Feb 28;73(2):186-98.