Predicting X Factor, Part 1: Conspiracy theories

Welcome to a five-part series of posts on X Factor betting strategies. We’ll have plenty to say about this year’s crop of contestants after judges’ houses, but in the meantime we’ll be covering some general principles that we’ll want to refer back to during the live shows.

Predicting X Factor is very different from predicting Eurovision. Essentially, it involves two things. First, guessing what the producers want to happen. And second, guessing how likely it is that the voting public will oblige.

Perhaps you think the producers don’t have preferred outcomes – that they merely aim to provide a level playing field on which acts can compete. If so, drop us a line – we have a bridge to sell you. X Factor is first and foremost a highly scripted entertainment show designed to maximise revenue, leaving as little to chance as possible.

Exactly how much of the show can be scripted, and how much has to be on-the-hoof, is something only show insiders will know for sure. But we can safely guess that throughout the auditions process the producers are looking for pegs to fit pre-defined holes, and that the final 12 are carefully chosen to appeal to different voting demographics and with potential narrative arcs in mind.

For example, there is often a pantomime act who one judge can appear to hate (Jedward, McDonald Brothers, Same Difference); a clearly talented act who can be unfairly portrayed as arrogant and later reborn as humble (Danyl, Rhydian); one or more potential ugly ducklings, whose “journey” to swanhood can be punctuated by such comments as “you don’t know how good you are” and “you need to believe in yourself” (Alexandra, Leona); a visually pleasing if vocally mediocre teenage boy to get the young girls voting (Lloyd, Eoghan); a sexy girl group to throw to the tabloids (Hope, Kandy Rain); and so on.

When the live shows start, the producers have much to gain from keeping in for as long as possible any act which is generating a lot of media buzz (hence audience share, hence advertising revenue) – like Jedward in 2009. In the later stages, they will hope to steer the voting towards a winner who is likely to prove commercially viable with the music-buying public, and not merely appealing to the phone-voting public: a Leona, not a Leon.

But the producers are not infallible. Sometimes acts unexpectedly take off, or fail to fly despite the producers’ best efforts. There is always the risk of a backlash if favouritism is perceived to be too obvious. Sometimes things just don’t work out as intended.

The show has many ways of playing the public mood, and we’ll look in-depth at two of them in the coming days – the running order and judges’ comments. There are others, of course: often on internet messageboards you will find fans complaining bitterly about how the show has nobbled their favourite act by giving them a duff song choice, or skewering them in the tabloids. But here we start to tread on very slippery ground.

Poor song choice is certainly one tactic the producers can use when they want an act eliminated, but we suspect this can happen as much by accident as design. Nor is it easy to be sure whether the producers’ fingerprints are on any given tabloid story, and – if they are – whether their intention is to turn the public against an act, or to bolster the act’s sympathy vote. Or, simply, to keep X Factor in the headlines.

With any conspiracy theory, it can be hard to decide whether it’s more gullible to believe it or dismiss it. We’ll be trying to get that balance right.

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