From malaria scares to autotune scandals, prostitution to deportation, The X Factor has continued to set the news agenda. After weeks spent listening to warbling wannabes for which fame is life itself, the reality juggernaut stepped into frenzied overdrive last night as the live stages began. But you could be easily mistaken for thinking you were tuning into an entirely different show, as last night’s X Factor had more than a passing resemblance to the Eurovision Song Contest.
All the notable Eurovision countries were present and correct. There was a stout balladeer singing for Ireland, a camp, Bucks-Fizz duo entered on the UK’s behalf, and even Brazil managed to smuggle in a bongo-playing pensioner.
At more than two-and-a-half hours, the mammoth broadcast resembled the Eurovision in length, and featured 16 acts. One contestant, Katie Waissel – a strong-jawed blonde with a fetish for the 80s – played the piano while it seemed to rest on the heads of two semi-naked musclemen. 17-year-old Cher Lloyd rapped as six dancers writhed around on a tall lattice of monkey bars behind her.
And suddenly, any lingering pretence that this TV talent show was truly about the talent was wiped away. Just as Eurovision discovered when rock-singing gargoyles started winning the contest, it seems The X Factor has become more about the gimmicks and shouting the loudest rather than the actual sound coming out of the contestants’ gobs.
The X Factor has long been accused of becoming a parody of itself, and this could never be truer than on last night’s show.
Everything was just that bit bigger and shinier than last year’s series. The opening trailer sliced through footage so quickly that it almost induced an epileptic fit. The polished show floor gleamed, and the phone-in graphics twinkled in coats of digital glitter. And throughout the show, the posh voiceover man seemed to wet himself as he boomed with melodramatic zeal.
Eight measly minutes into the show and a four-minute ad break kicked in. No one’s even sang a note yet. And unfortunately, the schedule continued like this for the rest of the night. You’d usually see only two performances sandwiched between the ads, and in some parts, just one act thinly spread between the commercial chunks.
This may not be unexpected considering that ITV rely on The X Factor to fund their existence, and that last year’s bumper ad breaks and extended programmes did nothing to diminish the public’s interest. This year though they have taken their cash cow to a whole new level of extortion. ITV will now make a tidy earning from every song, as the contestants’ performances will be on sale through iTunes immediately after each show.
Last year’s series was so influential that popstars who performed on the Sunday night results show were almost guaranteed the number one spot in the official singles music charts. This latest move will mean that X Factor will further encroach on the music industry, dominating the charts and lining the pockets of ITV execs.
And yet, in spite of all the negatives, viewing figures continue to rise, because The X Factor ultimately continues to compel. Regardless of whether or not it’s about the talent, it is the definition of event TV. It entertains, it appals, and you have to be there in the moment to properly share the fun.
Both Simon and ITV know that the good times can’t continue forever. History suggests that entertainment programmes last for around seven or eight series before the audience starts switching off. It seems there will be a break next year while Cowell attempts to launch the format in America. Perhaps this will stave off the impending ratings exodus, but ITV need to rethink its offering if they are going hold onto The X Factor’s mainstream following in the long run.