Predicting X Factor, Part 2: The running order

It’s a well-established fact that when it comes to voting in reality shows, people have short attention spans. Other things being equal, therefore, the later acts to perform have better chances of getting more votes than the earlier ones. This is because people have short attention spans.

Did we mention that people have short attention spans?

You might expect this to be especially significant in the early weeks of the competition, before acts have had time to build up a fan base. And so it seems to be. Remarkably, in five of the six series of X Factor, the first act to perform in week one has ended up in the bottom two. But that’s not all.

In the first few weeks of the show – when there are more than eight acts on stage – no act performing either last or last-but-one has ever been in the bottom two.

The benefits of singing last of all – the “pimp slot” – are greatest of all. Only one act in X Factor history has ever faced the judges in the bottom two after singing last. (Ashley Mackenzie in 2006, since you ask).

What might surprise you is how significant the running order still is in the later stages of the competition. In the 12 shows which have featured either three or four contestants, the first to sing has been eliminated eight times – more than twice the rate you’d expect from chance.

And in the shows with five, four or three contestants – when elimination is decided by public vote alone – only two acts have been directly eliminated after singing in the pimp slot (Ben Mills in 2006 and Danyl Johnson in 2009). This is less than half the rate you’d expect from chance.

Even in the final, when there are only two acts left, the second one to sing has won four times out of six.

The running order isn’t decided by drawing straws, of course. The X Factor producers decide who performs when, and this gives them arguably their biggest opportunity to nudge the voting public towards their desired outcome – something we discussed in our previous post, on X Factor conspiracy theories. In the next post we’ll examine another way in which the public vote is influenced: judges’ comments.

8 comments to Predicting X Factor, Part 2: The running order

  • Monix

    I can confirm that running order is particularly important in the first live show also on other countries.
    In the past 2 years the acts who performed first on the italian’s x factor first live show, ended both up in the bottom 2.

  • seanvice

    Hi, good articles, mainly in agreement, However I think it’s important to point out that when there are three and four contestants the ‘pimp slot’ is often given to the so called ‘favourite’.

    Therefore I think it’s dubious at best to argue that there is an inherant advantage in the draw when we get to 4 contestants or less.

    Lets look at some examples.

    Last year’s final 4 – Olly and Daniel the 2 favourites to go before draw known, Daniel gets pimp slot, Olly first – DANIEL GOES.

    Series 5 final – Alexandra favourite to win before draw known – wins. Eggnog fav to be first out before draw known – first out. Draw not really the factor, especially as Eggnog survived when there was four left when he was first.

    Series 4 final – Rydian – favourite AND pimp slot – lost – draw certainly not a deciding factor there, if it was then it should have confirmed Rydian’s win.

    Even when looking at the order when there are lots of contestants left I only really see A CLEAR ADVANTAGE when singing dead last and possibly next to last when there are 8 or more.

    Above that – I know we have seen quite a lot of singers in slots 1 and 2 in early shows be bottom 2, however when we look at them, none of them have been shocks. I would argue that Rachel and Kandy Rain would have been bottom 2 last year if they were anywhere from slot 1 to 10.

    In series 5 – Girlband would always be bottom 2

    VERY FEW of those in the bottom 2 from early slots can be argued to have found themselves there because of being drawn 1 or 2. IMO

  • Andrew

    Monix – thanks for that. Always fascinated to learn more about how these shows work in other countries – there must be a thesis to be written about what factors are cross-cultural and which aren’t.

    Sean – these are good points, but there’s also a cause-and-effect circularity going on here. Does the running order reflect who’s favourite (probably partly, they’ll want to save the most popular acts for last), or does the betting incorporate also a feeling about which acts are favoured and therefore most likely to be given the pimp slot? Danyl and Rhydian are both fascinating examples (imo – this is pure speculation) of when the producers didn’t get the result they were looking for (although if you look at the voting %s Danyl was very nearly through over Olly).

  • seanvice

    Yea, take that point on board Andrew, the running order is actually a very intresting debate. With so many examples it is of course possible to produce plenty of evidence that supports either end of the arguement.

    I havent got time now, but with the %’s relseased in the past 2 years we can produce even more in depth anaylsis when it comes to running order.

  • Andrew

    Would be ideal to have a bigger data set to help isolate its effect – I wonder, are these %s available for X Factors in other countries? Also interesting to note how it differs between formats – eg Britains Got Talent and Eurovision, as we covered in earlier posts.

  • David

    Very interesting post, as always!

    I’m curious: are the phone lines open the whole show through in X-Factor (I’m Swedish, so I wouldn’t know)? I assume the advantage of going last is heavily accentuated if the phone lines don’t open until after everyone have sung…

    • Andrew

      Hi David – Thanks and welcome! Generally they’re open only after everyone has sung, though when they have two songs per act in the later stages, they open them after the first round of performances. Surpisingly, it’s debateable how much difference it makes to have lines open throughout the show – it still seems to be an advantage to sing late, at least if Junior Eurovision is anything to by. Dan posted about this here

      Do you have an X Factor equivalent in Sweden, and if so does the running order seem to have a similarly strong effect there?

  • David

    We have Swedish Idol, and for as long as I can remember the viewers have always been able to vote throughout the show there – so I don’t know how big the effect is. Also, I’m trying to be humble to the fact that the statistics available is extremely limited.

    That being said, I’ll gladly check it out and get back here with my findings!

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