Predicting X Factor, Part 3: Judges’ comments

“You’ve gone from pub singer to wedding singer.”

“I’ve started to believe in you as a group.”

“Most emotional performance of the whole night.”

“You’ll be the last girl standing”

“You’re totally out of your depth.”

“You’re an unstoppable machine.”

What do these comments have in common? Nothing on the surface, ranging as they do from wild praise to damning criticism. Yet each of these comments was made by ‘neutral’ judges about the contestants who were eliminated from Week 2 to Week 7 of X Factor 2009.

Judges’ comments are unquestionably a key part of how the show expertly parts viewers from more of their phone-vote money. But as this collection of comments demonstrates, reading the runes of how judges’ comments will affect the vote is far from straightforward.

Broadly, comments lead to votes in two well-understood ways: praise and criticism. Praise plays to the fairness instinct of the public, enthusing them to vote for an act that is seen as deserving to stay.

But praise guarantees nothing: plenty of contestants have been eliminated following unanimous praise and audience excitement – especially later in the process, when the judges are more consistently positive.

More interesting is the effect of criticism, which can sometimes be highly effective at inspiring sympathy votes and/or ‘anti-judge’ protest votes. A staple tactic of the show, for example, is for one judge to appear to take a strong dislike to another judge’s act; their repeated harsh criticism of merely mediocre performances can help keep an initially unfancied contestant safe for weeks (think Simon and the McDonald Brothers in 2006, Louis and Same Difference in 2007).

But criticism will not necessarily save an act. My theory from reviewing these shows is that when criticism is seen as unfair, it helps the contestant; but when the criticism, even if incredibly damning (such as for Kandy Rain in Week 1 of 2009), is seen as justifiable, the public will not sympathise by voting.

There are no hard and fast rules, especially in a show where hyperbole is the norm. But criticism that strikes you as overblown is likely to be a pitch to keep a contestant safe for the following week.

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