The X Factor was once the biggest show on British TV. At its peak in 2009, nearly 20 million of us were tuning in to watch the singing, squabbling and gasp-inducing drama of a judges ‘deadlock’. Even at its most bloated and contrived, Simon Cowell’s show offered fantastic weekend evening entertainment and it felt as though everyone was talking about it on Twitter. Louis Walsh’s infamous, “You’re like a young Lenny Henry!” line still gets trotted out today.
But now, The X Factor is a shrunken husk of its former self. Ratings have fallen to an 11-year low of around 5 million viewers per episode and it’s getting beaten not just by Strictly Come Dancing, but also by Countryfile and Antiques Roadshow. What’s gone wrong? Here are some of the main issues crippling ITV’s once unstoppable talent show.
We’re all suffering from format fatigue
The X Factor is now on its 12th series, and before that we had Popstars, Popstars: The Rivals and two series of Pop Idol. Seeing a supposedly ‘ordinary person’ transform into a singing superstar on primetime TV isn’t novel any more, and we’ve all become immune to the increasingly cynical sob stories that the show likes to coax out of contestants in a bid to get us emotionally involved. So many of The X Factor‘s storylines now feel like cliché: the one who’s doing it for an elderly relative; the one who got to Judges’ Houses in a previous year but didn’t make the live shows; the one who’s wanted to be a singer their whole life but just didn’t get the breaks and knows that this time, it’s definitely their last chance. It’s worth pointing out that this problem isn’t faced by The X Factor alone. US network Fox has announced that next year’s 16th season of American Idol will be the last following a terminal decline in ratings.
Some of the episodes are way too long
For four weeks in September and October, the Rugby World Cup booted The X Factor from its traditional Saturday night slot. ITV sought to make amends by giving us jumbo episodes on Sunday night instead. This was a mistake given the show’s declining appeal. Three of these episodes were devoted to the so-called ‘Six Chair Challenge’, a cruel and increasingly tedious rigmarole in which contestants are swapped in and out of contention at the judges’ whim like Lego figures. If you were able to make it through a full two hours of this nonsense, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
The new judges don’t appeal to ITV’s traditional audience
In an effort to freshen things up, The X Factor drafted in Rita Ora and Nick Grimshaw for this year’s series to sit alongside panel stalwarts Simon Cowell and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini. Though both Ora and Grimshaw have acquitted themselves decently enough, it’s arguable that neither is quite right for the show: they’re younger and cooler than the likes of Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, but do they appeal to the mass audience that ITV wants to attract on Saturday and Sunday nights? Most of the previous judges at least had some kind of universally appealing USP: Mel B was rude, Dannii Minogue actually cared about her contestants, Nicole Scherzinger often seemed brilliantly unhinged. Exacerbating this year’s lacklustre panel is the duff presenting duo of Olly Murs and Caroline Flack: one’s blandly affable; the other seems out of her depth.
The show hasn’t produced a big star in a while
Obviously The X Factor has never been about the music really – this is a Simon Cowell production, after all. Still, its credibility as a star-making vehicle is dented when a particular series fails to yield any kind of reasonably successful act. It doesn’t matter if that act doesn’t win – One Direction only came third in 2010 – but the show’s appeal is predicated on a certain strike rate. 2011 winners Little Mix are still going strong, but since then none of the show’s contestants has managed to sustain chart success. Last year’s runner-up Fleur East has a chance to make it big with her debut album, due next month, but this feels like a case of too little, too late.
Simon Cowell didn’t even invite Sinitta to Judges’ Houses this year
OK, so this is hardly the show’s most pressing problem, but it says a lot about The X Factor‘s inability to play to its own strengths in 2015. Sinitta’s inevitably ludicrous Judges’ House outfit always provided a moment of light relief that cut through the overwrought tears and tension of Judges’ Houses, and this year we were needlessly deprived of it. Cowell decided to bring along Louis Tomlinson from One Direction instead, and he turned up in a black sweater and jeans. Like the show now: boring.