X Factor 2013 Review Part 2: Running Order, Sympathy Bounce, Staging

The running order and sympathy bounce have long been staples of our analysis here on Sofabet. In the last series, we also got more into looking at the staging, though always with a nagging feeling that we might be reading too much into it. So in our customary act-by-act retrospective, let’s look not only at the effect of running order and sympathy bounce, but also see if we can see any patterns in the kinds of staging that seemed to be helpful and not.

We’ll start at the top with Sam. The blue line shows her vote totals as a percentage of the mean vote in each week. The grey bar shows her running order position – no grey bar means she opened the show, a bar running right to the top means she closed the show (in the last three weeks we’ve gone with positions in the second round of songs):


A quick note on the “percentage of the mean” method. We reckon it generally makes for more meaningful comparisons in that you should consider 10% of the vote in a 10-act show the equivalent of 11.1% in a 9-act show, 12.5% in an 8-act show, and so on. But it does mean that anyone who’s way out in front early on will inevitably dip towards the end: it’s a lot easier to poll 25% in a 12-act show than 100% in a 3-act show, so having started by pulling in three times the mean vote, Sam’s line was always going to end up lower.

That said, the story here is Sam taking a dip in week 2 when she opened the show (in the Strictly overlap zone, and when Louis called her “ScrewBo”); she bounced back in week 3, scoring even better than the week 4 pimp slot; and after that, a steady decline punctuated by the peak for her week 7 pimp slot.

Staging watch, then. Here are Sam’s best performances, week 1 and 3:



And here’s the week 2 dip:


Not too many surprises there. The yellow roses look simple and classy, and the ballroom dancers and ancient monument backdrop also look classy, albeit in a cheesy and dated kind of way – but then perhaps that’s just staging that delights the demo. We’d noted at the time that Sam’s red-and-black “time runing out” imagery recalled something they did to Christopher Maloney in 2012, and – whether coincidentally or not – it did correlate with a dip in her support.

Wee Nick:


As with Sam, he was always going to end lower than he started, but his decline to week 4 is quite precipitous and must have encouraged producers. Then they foolishly let him off the leash with that week 6 pimp slot, which saw his vote spike. Sending him out in a succession of early slots from week 7 onwards dragged his line back down again.

Best performances, for staging study – weeks 1 and 2.



A giant star in week 1, which is one of the staging decisions we believe (per Richard Betsfactor) is intended to have positive subliminal connotations. We had thought that week 2 staging – the procession of zombie women walking past him, and a backdrop of people walking away from him – was planting negative subliminals. If that was the intention then clearly it wasn’t successful, as it was his best relative vote of the series, even better than week 1’s star.

Nick’s worst weeks? It’s arguable how you figure it, but let’s look at both where his trendline takes the most precipitous drop (week 4, despite his first late-ish slot in the running order), and the lowest point of his line (the final).



Clearly, there is some support here for Richard Betsfactor’s “colour vomit” theory (that having a lot of contrasting of colours used in staging is unhelpful). On the other hand, a strike against Richard’s “star crazy” theory (that stars are helpful).

Luke now, and those red bits of the line indicate the week after a singoff, when we would usually expect an act to get a sympathy bounce:

LukeWhat’s remarkable about Luke’s trajectory is that he didn’t suffer a comedown from the bounce in week 8 – usually, sympathy bounces last only week, but Luke’s line just kept on going upwards. Of course, that was the week he was pimped to high heaven, but still ended up in the singoff, besting Tamera. He got a second bounce which continued his upward trajectory into the semi-final, despite being treated much less favourably then, and no bounce from that semi-final singoff save over Rough Copy. That’s not surprising – like a skimming stone, bounces tend to become progressively less potent.

Luke’s best week? You could argue it’s 9 (his highest point on the line) or 8 (given he performed well despite being on a bounce comedown). Let’s look at all four of the songs from those two weeks:





In all cases, the staging is pretty minimal – for ‘Skinny Love’, just Luke and a guitar with the lights on him and some squiggly abstract shapes on the backdrop in a warm colour palette; for ‘I Will Wait’, the lighting is less focused but colours similarly warm, and he again has his guitar – this time with a band of musicians, again arguably an example of delight-the-demo staging; warm colours and musicians again for ‘Best Thing I Never Had’; and just Luke with a bluey-silver turning-cog backdrop for ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’.

Luke’s worst weeks? 1 and 6.



No surprises that the incredibly distracting woman makes our list of unhelpful staging. Luke’s week 1 staging featured the man himself looking over his shoulder in monochrome and a slightly cold colour palette, although perhaps his lowly score in week 1 is better attributed to the lack of screentime he’d had since his room audition.

Rough Copy:

RCA promising enough start from the week 1 pimp slot, but a rapid decline in weeks 2 and then 3 when they opened the show, and their sympathy bounce after week 7 was anaemic considering it came with the help of the pimp slot. That’s a reminder that although the week 7 bounce was powerful for James Arthur, Olly Murs and JLS, there’s nothing necessarily magical about it.

Their best performance is week 1 – yes, they had the pimp slot, but they did a lot better from it than did Hannah or Tamera in the following two weeks.


Their worst vote was when they finished bottom in week 7:


There are superficial similarities in these screengrabs, but week 1’s blue-and-black palette was moody and atmospheric with occasional forked lightning, whereas week 7’s was a hot mess of a distracting laser show.

Fifth-placed Tamera:


An underwhelming performance from her week 3 pimp slot, then falling into the bottom two with an early slot in week 4. She gets a sympathy bounce following that week 4 save, and sympathy for her week 6 and 7 flubs slows the comedown.

Her best week – it’s the classy, understated smokey backdrop in week 2:


Her worst weeks, 4 (in a diamond cage) and 8 (scrapyard backdrop with colour-vomit top, followed by the white dress with floaty purple flowers in the backdrop):




Sixth-placed Hannah:

HannahHer peaks come with week 2’s pimp slot, and sympathy bounces in weeks 4 and 6 from which she then suffers immediate comedowns – the sympathy bounce, as we keep saying, usually lasts only a week, unless there are special circumstances (such as sympathy for Tamera’s lyrical flubs when she was due her comedown).

It’s hard to say how much we could read into the staging for her best weeks, given that pimp slot and bounce would be more obvious explanations. Her worst perfomances came with week 3’s fire, but also week 5’s golden machinery and week 7’s gold dress with purple cloudy skies:




Sam Callahan:


No surprises that his best week came with this beautiful backdrop:

week2_SamC2Here was his worst week – plenty of red and black and the song title in on the big screen:

week6_SamC_FaithAbi declines steadily, with a little bit of levelling out in week 3, when she cried:


Her best week, simple staging at a white piano:

week_1_AbiHer worse? That’s life.

week5_abiThe last act with a graph worth looking at is Kingsland Road, just for additional confirmation of the classic sympathy bounce and comedown pattern:


Their worst week, the psychedelic colour vomit for ‘Marry Me’:


This post hasn’t told us anything we didn’t know about running order or sympathy bounces. What has it told us about staging?

Regular readers will know that we took the decision to go to town on staging this year, and frequently asked ourselves if we were over-analysing. We feel there is certainly a danger of placing far too much weight on subliminals (“is that a sun or a black hole? Is that colour scheme a winning shade of gold, or a warning shade of amber?”). Nick’s week 2 staging, with zombies walking away from him, seemed terrible from a subliminals perspective but did him no harm at all.

Still, these’s enough evidence in the images above for some of the red flag danger signs pioneered by our friend Richard Betsfactor – fire, colour vomit, red and black time imagery – and some new ones from this year, like an older woman on a home video. Perhaps, though, as EM has suggested in the comments, these can simply all be subsumed under an umbrella of “a big distracting mess”.

Certainly the examples of helpful staging seem broadly to share the theme of simplicity. In particular, Tamera and Sam Callahan in week 2 stand out as vote spikes that have no other obvious cause; in both cases, the staging was classy and elegant, as was the case with a number of other acts’ good weeks.

What are your takehome messages on staging in retrospect? Do let us know below.

17 comments to X Factor 2013 Review Part 2: Running Order, Sympathy Bounce, Staging

  • Hello, long-time lurker finally entering the fray, thanks for some really interesting reads.

    Can I add a few observations, a couple of which I don’t think have been mentioned before? Apologies if they’re going over old ground.

    Something that had occurred to me, which I think this article confirms is that pink (and to an extent purple) seem to dampen votes… Nick’s week 4 had a big star, but it was pink, and the overall Candy impression? Pink. Tamera’s coat of many colours and floaty flowers, Hannah’s Hallelujah lighting and Abi’s That’s Life all strongly pink or purple. And not forgetting Miss Dynamix’s Dreams – colour vomit, but predominantly pink.

    Next is something that’s nagged at me for a long time; it’s only an occasional thing, and really only at the early stages of the live shows, but Peter Dickson’s introduction sets the tone… check out the way he says Shelley Smith’s name before she does Alone. Compared to his usual fruity bellowing, he sounds bored, and it sets the tone for a ‘so what’ performance. After all, if he can’t summon up any enthusiasm, why should the voting public? I think it’s an occasional ploy to dampen support for early stage cannon fodder.


    Finally, and I know this has been touched on, I think that some songs are XF poison. I haven’t done a huge amount of digging on this, but Alone put Shelley at the bottom of the heap, and a few weeks later it did the same for Rachel on XFUSA. As has already been commented on, That’s Life is XFP, and upbeat Whitney Houston always seems to go down badly. I suspect the same is true for You’re Beautiful (I think Maria Lawson did it the week before she went) and Without You (which did for Brenda Edwards, as I recall), but can’t find strong evidence to back that up.

    I think that this series had an end-of-cycle feel about it, and there could well be a scorched earth approach to XF 2014, with Simon Cowell riding up like the Lone Ranger to save the day. Aside from Gary Barlow and Sharon Osborne going, I’d also be very happy to see the back of Louis Walsh and Dermot O’Leary. The last two or three series have been more like hard work than entertainment, something needs to be done.

    • Hello Phillip and welcome to Sofabet! These are great points, especially love the Peter Dickson one – that’s a completely new one on me, and makes perfect sense. Kind of like the way you could immediately tell from James Alexander Gordon’s intonation of a team’s name in the classified results whether they’d won or lost. That intro for Shelley Smith you linked to is hilarious.

      I keep meaning to dig into whether there’s any respectable research on colour connotations in the public domain – I assume that kind of thing will be studied rigorously by corporate marketing departments, and the knowledge kept proprietary. A quick google turns this up

      Studies have confirmed that exposure to large amounts of pink can have a calming effect on the nerves and create physical weakness in people.

      “Can’t… quite… reach… the… phone…”

      • annie

        this might sound funny but it immedeatly came to my mind as I was reading this last comment so decided to share.
        So recently i was assisting a friend in buying a new tv. as we checked a number of devices there was always one problem: the magenta-pink the kind philip is referring to was unpleasant or borderline unpleasant to look at on many of them, regardless of brand or type. when we mentioned it laughingly to the sales guy he pointed out that there are color schemes and there are ways to tame it, but we ended up concluding that the latest tvs (or rather the technology in them) make magenta unpleasant to look at. And now that you connect it to productions which dont poll enough votes… maybe there is something in it. :))

    • Jessica Hamby

      I was expecting something camp, fabulous and OTT from Shelley and I think you’re spot on about voiceoverman creating a sense of anticlimax and helping to squash any momentum she might have had before it began.

  • tpfkar

    Cracking articles and happy new year.

    It feels ages ago, doesn’t it? not much left to say that hasn’t been said but a couple of thoughts:

    1) We wondered if Gary went off-script in calling St. Tamera of Boots a Beyonce-impersonator, and not taking on Sam C in the panto role. Is it possible that the decision to ditch Rough Copy in the semis was about payback to Gary, once the producers had decided they didn’t have a commercial interest in RC post-show?

    2) Simplicity does seem to be helpful, so why have all the performances become so complicated? the number of dancers, effects etc. has gone up in the last 2 series and the staging evidence suggests it just distracts.

    3) It still seems that running order is producers’ attack tool of choice, looking at how they made Nick open the show again and again.

    • Cheers tpfkar and happy new year to you too!

      1) Still wouldn’t explain the singoff, though, as it must have been clear to them from the week 8 results that RC would be a lock for last place in the semi, so if it was about Gary payback they could just have let it go to public vote. Unless they were hoping to get Nick with the singoff, and when he finished narrowly ahead of Luke they didn’t care that much between Luke and RC… But then why did they not pimp Luke more in the semi? Surely they could have got him above Nick if they’d pushed him as hard as they had in week 8.

      2) I wonder if they have evidence that complicated productions retain viewer interest, even as they dampen votes? If 90% of viewers are never going to be moved to vote, which is about what YouGov has suggested in the past, maybe then it would make sense to ramp up the average complication factor – it still gives them scope to help/hinder certain acts by departing from the average.

    • Gamblebot

      2) Have the performances really been more complicated? More sloppy, probably, but not more complicated. Series 6 and 7 made more use of the whole stage than this year by a large margin. The most rabid use of dances all year was Nicky’s Candy and that’s small fry.

  • Jessica Hamby

    Hi Phillipa/Phillip
    Great first post. Very useful and fresh insights. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  • Thanks Andrew

    My first thought on the pink thing was that being seen as a girly colour, it would dampen the male vote, but that feels too simplistic (and stereotypical), plus if voters are predominantly young and female, it just doesn’t hold water.

    The link pink theory is persuasive, and I found this item on the effects of colours; some is fairly obvious, but it’s succinctly put, and it’s generally interesting.


    I particularly like the contrasting effects of purple (spiritual, the highest quality, but cheapening if overdone), the negatives feel true for Tamera’s flowers and Hannah’s Hallelujah.

  • Dan

    I’ll be honest, I don’t believe in looking too much into the subliminal aspects of staging and lighting. That said, I’ve no doubt that it can have a negative impact on voting but the way they go about it is blatant rather than subtle. I offer these two examples:

    1. We have Nick above and his colour vomit. Too messy, too busy.

    Contrast this with:

    2. Marcus Collins in 2011 with his performance of “Last Christmas”. An empty stage, no backing singers, no props, no colour, nothing. The guy looked lost and very much alone out there.

  • Gamblebot

    One question: what made them do a U-turn on Luke? He was given a lousy edit before the lives but they waited for him to break through (three whole weeks of late slots, in fact) before sticking him into an early slot. Note that if on Week 3, they game him Your Song (also a song in a movie) in an early slot, he could have been the partner of Miss Dynamix, then waltzing out of the show in Week 5 after a small bounce, Kingsland Road style.

    Instead, they pushed him and after a slight deramping that sees him being saved (since his breakthrough only got him as far as being in the middle of the “middle pack”), they revived him, then they saved him over two acts that seemed like the producers’ pets (Tamera and RC) and showed more love to him than Nicky (understandable given the aim to get Sam the victory, but shocking considering that Nicky seemed to be the darling of the Boys coming into Week 1).

    Also, if we believe that the number of votes escalated in Week 8, then Sam really was in danger because despite the pimping (paired with deramping Nicky), Nicholas had more floaters (given that their gap is narrower than that in Week 7, at least until Luke was out) and Luke had more than either of them.

  • lolhart

    Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still don’t think Sam B was Plan A. I think they were hoping for a year of the girls with Hannah, Tamera and Miss Dynamix all getting to the latter stages. Except things didn’t go according to plan for all three. Hannah’s treatment at Judges Houses especially was not that of a typical 6th placer. Sam B was of course the Alpha Over, but I’m still convinced they were hoping to do a Mary Byrne on her towards the end. I don’t put a lot of credence in that she was the judges’ pick to win, as the envelopes could have been changed. It would have been embarassing if they’d all chosen Tamera at the reveal.

    I think the reasons they gave up on Tamera and Hannah so quickly is because history has shown they can push a contestant all they want, but if the public don’t take to them it doesn’t bode well for a post-show career. Cher Lloyd and Misha B have both struggled to overcome the perception people have of them from the show. Perhaps they were hoping initially that Tamera’s bad girl image would make her popular with the yoof demo? But Cher and Misha both gave strong performances whereas Tamera only ever seemed to be coasting along.

    I think the U-turn with Luke was just luck on his part. Saving Tamera was pointless and it didn’t go unnoticed that Rough Copy couldn’t sing together in tune. Luke became a safe option to keep around. They deramped him one week so he wouldn’t gain too much momentum and pimped him a bit another to keep him safe.

  • Jessica Hamby

    Lolhart’s post makes the most sense of this series of all the interpretations I’ve seen. Mary J Blige gushed over Hannah at judges houses to the point where she really did look like the annointed one – old soul and all that sort of thing. Tamera could possible have turned it around but the shoplifting and a sequence of poor performances ruined her. Hannah, apart from one performance of a 60s soul number, sounded on the edge of shouting a lot. As pointed out Rough Copy could never quite make it in tune. It’s as if the viewers / voters have better ears than the judges and producers or else, as has been said so many times already, the well of talent has simply run dry.

    No wonder Cowell is coming back next year. One or even two bad decisions might be seen as unfortunate but the sequence here – Tamera, Rough Copy, Miss Dynamix, Hannah, no novelty act (or else Shelley being destroyed before she even started), the uncomfortable scene with Abi etc look like the thing was overseen by someone with appalling judgement. If it wasn’t for Sam B and Nicholas I think the program would be on channel 5 next season.

  • Henry VIII

    I’ve always thought Tamera was their plan A. Hannah was to be Tamera’s outrider, a similar act that they would later ditch. And they started the Mary Byrne treatment on Sam Bailey but quickly discarded it as all their plans turned to dust.

    Because Tamera couldn’t remember lyrics, was too cold, had fresh bad stories, was beyond redemption.

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