A quick look at this morning’s headlines revealed that Strictly Come Dancing has once again nudged ahead of X Factor in the ratings battle, although with both shows garnering average audiences of over 9 million, both production teams should be feeling largely satisfied.
However, given the suggestion that a lack of any genuine ‘A’ listers on the Strictly lineup this year might inhibit its success, bosses over at ITV1 must be wondering why their much-hyped, Osbourne-reinfused product still hasn’t quite got what it takes to overhaul its permatanned BBC1 adversary.
Could the answer be in reality of the competitions themselves?
SCD has a simple format: Hire celebrities, pair them up with professional partners, teach them to dance, let the audience pick a winner. Sure, some of the ‘celebrities’ increase professional exposure, briefly reignite careers, or remind people that they haven’t died- but, ultimately, one couple wins, and their prize is a naff trophy and heartfelt congratulations.
X Factor’s format used to be simple: Hold open auditions, sift some talented wheat from comical chaff, have the contestants sing-off week after week, before allowing the public to vote for a winner who’ll receive a multimillion dollar recording contract.
Yet, whilst Strictly (save for the odd change to voting procedure) has retained its solid, straightforward format with clear-cut outcome, X Factor has rather lost its way.
Firstly, they’ve given up on using themes to test versatility and star quality- now it’s all about ‘making the song your own’, and essentially conveyor belt-crafting nobodies into ready-made somebodies. But secondly, and most importantly, winning X Factor isn’t everything.
These days, catching the eye of Simon Cowell or music industry bigwigs seemingly has much more baring on post X Factor success than actually being crowned the winner. Exhibit A: One Direction.
X Factor has drifted into an entertainingly cynical manufacturing process, producing half-decent pop music fodder aimed at swelling the coffers of a music industry obsessed with commercial viability, and tabloids desperate to fill their pages with bright young things.
Which brings us to the third problem- that this is precisely how the music industry has always worked. X Factor’s selling point used to be that it somehow acted as an intervention, presenting an opportunity for both audiences and contestants to gatecrash their way through the closed doors of the music industry; when, in reality, it merely packages the workings of the industry and presents it as television. X Factor used to promote the ‘winning’ as the ultimate achievement, but as this has become less intrinsically relevant, it doesn’t bother so much anymore- and this does create a problem in terms of narrative, and the credibility of purpose of the format. It’s not as if the X Factor is being dishonest; if anything, it’s being very honest about the nature of commercial music success these days. But maybe it is the disingenuity about the overall outcome which is affecting the ‘edge-of-the-seat’ unmissability the show once had.