It turned into a frustrating season of X Factor: from about week 7, it’s felt difficult to read producers’ intentions. The market swings during last night’s show were unprecedented. And even now, with the stats to hand, it’s hard to be sure what producers intended to achieve over the final weekend. Broadly, two schools of thought have been advanced in the Sofabet comments.
Theory #1. Producers always wanted and expected Matt to win. On this theory, the only reason they gave him such bad treatment in weeks 8 and 9, getting him within 1% of the singoff in the former case and in the singoff in the latter, was to create the illusion of a more open race. They’d learned their lesson from the Louisa ramp-a-thon last year, and wanted to create the impression that Matt had fought back rather than being boringly unassailable all along.
This fits the facts, in so far as Matt always seemed the preferred winner until those week 8 and 9 surprises. As an amalgam of McElderry, Cardle and Haenow, he was always going to be the act most likely to pick up floating voters at the business end of the competition. Both of Sunday’s song choices seemed more likely to pick up votes than Saara’s. And on Saturday, Nicole twice overtly played the anti-foreigner card on his behalf (“England, get behind your very own”).
The nagging doubt with this theory is that usually, for the good of the franchise, they big up the act they expect to win so it strikes viewers as more deserving. In Matt, they have a winner Simon Cowell called “wet” in week 8 and “bland” in week 9, and implied was “quite obviously” inferior to Saara on the final Saturday. That seems an odd way to launch someone with clear similarities to previous winners who flopped commercially. On the Sunday show, Cowell chose to focus his praise on Matt’s ambition: “you want to win, and I love working with winners”. It was hardly a glowing endorsement of his real-world credentials.
So perhaps we should also consider:
Theory #2. Producers wanted Matt out in third, and hoped 5AM could win. The semi-final vote was closer than we’d imagined between Saara (28.8%) and 5AM (26.6%), with Matt (22.5%) further behind 5AM than anticipated. Admittedly, that reflected huge pimping for 5AM, and the comparison of Matt to a butterless sandwich.
Still, in the closing stages of the competition 5AM’s vote was stronger in general – and Matt’s weaker – than we’d thought. In week 8, when 5AM hit the bottom two, they were within 0.9% of Matt (and just 3.4% off topping the vote). In week 7, which we assumed Matt had won comfortably, he in fact won narrowly and with a lower vote share than back in week 1. 5AM beat Matt in week 6. It seems fair to wonder if producers, after the semi-final, thought: “We’ve got Matt under control, and 5AM within range of Saara. 5AM can win this”.
The counter-argument here is that 5AM’s treatment on Saturday was such a mess. They opened the show in an urban war zone, and their duet with Clean Bandit and Louisa verged on the embarrassing. Despite that, they came within 2.1% of knocking Matt out, and 4% of topping the vote altogether. That’s pretty astonishing. If they’d had a better duet, and Matt a worse one, it seems likely they’d have made the Sunday.
So why didn’t they? Perhaps producers had initially hoped to get a more suitable partner for 5AM (The Weeknd and GEM were floated during the week, though the latter never seemed on) and a less suitable one for Matt (reportedly James Arthur pulled out; and while ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ is a great song, it doesn’t necessarily work as a male-male duet). That might explain the cobbled-together feel of the 5AM duet. Perhaps, when they had to turn to Nicole for Matt, she insisted on a great song choice and staging to try to avoid the indignity of performing with Matt and then consoling him as he was voted out half an hour later.
If 5AM had squeaked above Matt, would they have won? The fact that Matt overtook Saara from Saturday to Sunday indicates vote transfer that might, to some extent, have applied in reverse. Against that, Matt is a much more floating vote-friendly act than 5AM. Still, it seems reasonable to wonder if Saara’s less-than-ideal song choices on Sunday, which were presumably made early in the week, might have reflected producer expectation that she’d be up against a within-range 5AM.
So – cock-up or conspiracy? It’s the eternal question when analysing X Factor. We can’t call it with total confidence, which seems fitting in this most unpredictable of seasons.
Some of our other takeaways from the statistics:
Honey G’s weakness meant the Remily singoff was never on the cards. Throughout the early weeks, many Sofabet commenters assumed producers would want a Ryan-Emily singoff at some point. It wasn’t a theory we wrote about ourselves, because we thought – erroneously, as it turned out – that Emily was earmarked for the final, and they’d likely want to get her there without a singoff. But by the run-up to week 7, Emily’s weak week 6 made us think producers would run with it. We were surprised when, instead, Emily got the pimp slot and Honey G appeared in the singoff.
The statistics, though, make clear that Honey G was always going to be in trouble in week 7. They’d given her the pimp slot in week 6 and still she’d cleared the singoff by only 0.6%. Producers must have concluded there was no way they could get her safe again.
Saara’s strong week 7 overturns some assumptions. We’d guessed Saara wouldn’t have been far off the singoff in week 7. We were wrong: she was nearly 7% above the singoff, and only 1% off winning the week. We’d thought the heavily subtitled VT, implying she missed Finland, was a clear red flag, but evidently not. And we’d thought styling that aged her and musical-theatre staging for ‘My Heart Will Go On’ wouldn’t have helped. Evidently, the audience lapped it up.
Sofabet commenters at the time challenged both of these thoughts, arguing that the VT will have provoked sympathy and that Christopher Maloney proves how well voters respond to well-sung covers of well-known songs. It goes to show, once again, that the most valuable insights on Sofabet are found in the debates below the line.
Gifty Louise was never going to fly. We were initially surprised when producers let Gifty go in the week 4 singoff – their previous treatment of her seemed to indicate thay they viewed her as having commercial potential, while 4 of Diamonds were firmly on the disposable list. But the voting stats show why they gave up on Gifty: she was only a whisker off the singoff in week 2, and only 0.5% above it in week 3, when they gave her a blonde wig and every opportunity to have a moment. She was a lost cause with the voting public.
The “bottom three” twist transformed Ryan’s and Saara’s narratives. For the first five weeks, producers ran with a bottom three rather than the traditional bottom two, with a “lifeline vote” saving one act. It made no difference to who went home, with each of the five eliminees having been in the bottom two. But it did make a difference to public perceptions of Ryan’s and Saara’s popularity. With a bottom two, Ryan would have been in the singoff only in week 2, and Saara not at all.
Arguably, that made the show more interesting in that it enabled the narrative of Saara’s comeback from early unpopularity. But it also made it more boring by making clear (not least to Ryan himself) that Ryan was a dead man walking. On the whole, we’re not convinced it’s an idea worth retaining for next year. Certainly producers dropped it at exactly the moment (week 6) when it would have snared Honey G, buying them an extra week of “could she really win?” headlines.
Those are our main takeaways. Do keep yours coming below.
Photos via ©ITV