The Commercial Factor: The X Factor and ITV
by Andrew O'Day
'the makeover show where what is made-over is the person'
The X Factor premiered on ITV at the beginning of September 2004 and has retained an Autumn slot leading up to Christmas each year to this very day. The programme was the brain child of Simon Cowell who had previously acted as a judge on ITV's Pop Idol. However, Pop Idol was owned by ITV and Cowell wanted to devise a format of his own with monies coming to his production company. The similarities between The X Factor and Pop Idol, which was cancelled after only two seasons, would lead to lawsuits. However, this article will place The X Factor as commercial television in the context of television generally, both in relation to other 'Reality TV' and other programmes, and will argue that while it does have distinctive features it also lacks 'uniqueness' in these other ways. These similarities, then, do not only occur on a generic level where one would expect to see them.
Pop Idol ran for two seasons in 2001-2 and 2003 and followed a pattern that is only too familiar to X Factor viewers. Auditions were held across the UK where selected hopefuls sang before four judges, Simon Cowell, Pete Waterman, Nikki Chapman, and Neil Fox; and many of the poor acts were aired for entertainment. The judges would then decide on 50 acts to go through to the next stage, prefiguring the early formula of The X Factor's 'boot camp'. However, the rest of the series was determined by viewer voting: the 50 acts were divided into five groups of ten where each contestant would sing a song. The judges would offer a very candid opinion but it was the top two from each group decided by the viewer vote that went forward to the theme-orientated live shows (though in the second season an additional two acts were given a second chance, one by the viewer vote and one by the judges). The live shows saw the contestant with the lowest number of votes eliminated in a Results Show aired later in the evening each week. The X Factor does display differences at the level of format with Graeme Turner noting that formats are original and copyrighted (contestants are split into categories based on their age and sex and whether they are solo artists or Groups with each category mentored by a particular judge, in the 'Judges Houses' round contestants are picked to go into the live shows, and the two acts with the least number of votes most weeks compete in a final performance with the judges deciding which act to send home). But the similarities are apparent and continuity with existing successful programme formats are likely to bring in viewers. Indeed, as Jonathan Bignell argues, Pop Idol is itself not 'unique' but is a version of the game show and 'the makeover show where what is made-over is the person'. He writes that here 'the objective of this transformation is explicitly public fame and recognition' with 'members of the public…advised' and 'abused by a team of experts who guide their transformation'. So The X Factor fits into this mould.
However, The X Factor fits in with a history of television programming more widely and is designed to get people to watch and consume advertisements. As a type of 'Reality TV', The X Factor is a talent contest and for this reason the Audition Shows which kick off each year's season are important in highlighting both talent and lack of talent. One sees selected members of the public auditioning for the judges; for the first five seasons these auditions took place in a judges' room, from the sixth season onwards the auditions were held in front of a live studio audience with a backing track; and from the tenth season there was a combination of both. Many television viewers will be entertained by the more dire acts and the looks that these elicit on the judges faces. These initial shows appeal to many viewers' voyeuristic tendencies, with the term 'voyeurism' here not associated with sex, but rather than resembling Channel 4's Big Brother where the television viewer looks in on the activities of contestants in a specially designed house, they mirror ITV's own You've Been Framed, based on America's Funniest Home Videos which itself owes much to Candid Camera with its gags. You've Been Framed began in 1990 and after being hosted by Jeremy Beadle, Lisa Riley, and Jonathan Wilkes respectively, it was taken over by comedian Harry Hill in 2004. Hill humorously narrates over clips that have been sent in by members of the audience depicting their family or friends in embarrassing situations. You've Been Framed is a very popular programme and its position in the Saturday night schedules has been earlier than The X Factor. One can conjecture that The X Factor auditions will appeal to this light-entertainment audience and keep many of them on ITV on a Saturday night.
Apart from in the first 2004 season where there were two editions of 'Boot Camp' screened on consecutive Saturdays, there were four instalments, which from the fourth 2007 season were screened on Saturdays and Sundays over two weekends, while in the 2014 season there were three editions screened over the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of one weekend. According to some, the original 'Boot Camp' was filler, could drag on and was not very exciting; it involved contestants being set tasks of songs and being put forward or eliminated in rows at the end. In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, 'The Six Seat Challenge' was introduced to replace this formula. This was referred to in a 2013 promo as 'BRAND NEW BOOTCAMP'. The rules of 'The Six Seat Challenge' are that each of the acts, that survive an initial sing-off, perform in front of the judges and an audience at Wembley Arena; all the judges then offer their opinions on the acts; but the particular mentor decides whether he or she will offer that act one of six available seats in the contest, both literal seats and figurative ones, to go through to the 'Judges' Houses' round. However, the catch is that the mentor either offers or refuses a seat as he or she sees the acts and if the mentor wishes to offer a seat to another act but all six seats have been filled he or she must swap this person with an act already seated. This was referred to in the promo as a game of 'MUSICAL CHAIRS'. A judge is also entitled to ask for a sing-off between contestants in order to reach a decision or at the end to admit that he or she had made a mistake in the selection of their final six and reverse their opinion. One can imagine the stress that this places on the contestants already seated and when a new act comes up to sing and when the fact that there is going to be a swap is announced not only is the live audience abuzz but there are long-shots and cuts between close-ups of contestants displaying nervousness and emotion. The television form of the serial could be put to good effect; for example, editions could end on a cliff-hanger, as to which person's chair an act would be taking, designed to get the television viewer to return to the following episode. And techniques are borrowed from the live Results Show which we shall see in more detail later; the mentors reveal that the act they wish to swap the new contestant with IS, followed by a pause, designed to generate suspense; and a mentor may say this just prior to an advertisement break (though this is not common), encouraging the television viewer to remain with the channel to discover the resolution, with the next 'segment' beginning with a recap. But for now it is important to note that so-called 'Mr Nasty', Simon Cowell, is very much in favour of the 'dramatic' and 'controversial' nature of this new formula which fits in with the more voyeuristic and even cruel nature of 'Reality TV'.
Following the boot camp instalments of The X Factor are the 'judges' houses' editions where contestants travel to the judges' (often very elegant) houses or what purports to be the judges' houses and compete again in the hope of winning a place in the live finals. It is at this stage that one sees the connections between the programme and the traditional game show, which much 'Reality TV' descends from. Just as the traditional game show is composed of 'rounds' in which competitors either lose and exit the programme or get closer to winning, engaging the television viewer, The X Factor has 'rounds' - auditions, boot camp, judges' houses - but ones which last for complete episodes rather than just for a tiny portion of an episode. These stretch the programme out absorbing the television viewer in a way that would be lost were there a move directly from boot camp to the live shows. Bignell writes about these as 'Gamedocs…adopted by the owners of more conventional game show formats'. Indeed, at the same time, as being a 'game', the judges' houses 'round' of The X Factor has strong connections with 'Reality TV' since emphasis is placed on the contestants' emotions at being selected or sent home. Like 'The Six Seat Challenge', this is, in many ways, a very cruel game.
These initial 'rounds' use a number of further techniques which are common to television, taking us beyond 'Reality TV' and the traditional game show. These techniques are designed to engage the viewer and get them watching. It is commonsense to assert that many viewers make their minds up very quickly as to whether they want to watch a programme and so pre-title sequences act as a 'hook'. After the first season, at the very start of the season's run, The X Factor pre-title sequence's disembodied voice emphasises the scale of the talent search to find, what would become referred to as, the 'NEXT BIG THING' and, with key images and words flashing up on screen, provides a sense of drama including in the presentation of the famous judges. In the first 'rounds' there are clips from within that week's instalment. In the case of the audition episodes, the clips will convey a sense of some of the more humorous dire performances along with the judges’ biting reactions and contestants’ responses, sometimes followed by a freeze frame for dramatic emphasis, while the boot camp and judges’ houses editions rely even more strongly on emphasising the contestants’ emotions that are going to be prominent in the actual 'episode'. Revealing what is to occur is a technique which can also be employed immediately prior to an advertisement break to keep viewers, just as we have seen a 'cliff-hanger' technique employed in 'The Six Seat Challenge'. Furthermore, the serial nature of the programme is highlighted in other ways to the end of episode 'cliff-hanger' we saw in 'The Six Seat Challenge'; where a later instalment is being offered there would be clips from the last episode, before launching into the new clips. Featuring clips from a previous episode or clips from a new episode just before the iconic title sequence is a long-standing technique in television; for example, the US has long-begun prime-time soap operas and drama series with a montage of more dramatic moments from the previous week or that will be contained in the new episode proper and these can also be seen in a series like I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! as well as indeed extremely brief tasters in You’ve Been Framed. Furthermore, in The X Factor, like other long-running shows, the programme's past can be relied upon to keep viewers from the very opening episode. The 2010 season begins with shots of winners like Joe McElderry, Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke, and successful runners up like Olly Murs and JLS, accompanying the phrase 'Year after year they come in their thousands, all with the same dream, but only a few stand out of the crowd. And now the dream has become reality…Tonight a new search begins'.
While the 2014 season saw the boot camp and judges' houses rounds transmitted on consecutive weekends on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, turning to the live shows and, very importantly, emphasis is placed on the idea that ITV is the place to be on a Saturday night. Either immediately prior to The X Factor's title sequence, or immediately after, Kate Thornton, Dermot O'Leary or the disembodied voice continually address the audience at home with the catch-phrase 'your Saturday night starts here' or a slight variation. The X Factor is therefore associated with Saturday-ness in the ITV television schedule, just as programmes like Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing have long been associated with Saturday-ness for the BBC. Associating a popular genre or programme with the start of the evening is not unique to The X Factor; successful long-running soaps Emmerdale and Coronation Street start various weekday evenings and in those cases act as, what John Ellis would call, 'bankers', creating 'echoes' where viewers may stay with the channel after top-rated programmes. This fits in with theorist Raymond Williams' notion of 'channel flow'. This is another example of the way The X Factor not only ties in with 'Reality TV' or the traditional game show.
We can deduce that every attempt is made to give The X Factor live shows the status of both 'Event TV' and 'must-see TV'. The term 'Event TV' has been used by scholars like Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, to refer to the televising of official ceremonies, such as royal weddings, funerals, and sports tournaments. The term 'must-see TV', meanwhile, has been employed by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons to refer to 'shows that…have become essential viewing' even by those viewers who are not absorbed in 'channel flow'. While The X Factor is not a one-off 'Event' it plays with the notion of 'Event TV', being a tournament which became grander in the fourth season with the addition of a fourth judge and an extra category where the younger boys and girls were split into two groups. Every ‘must-see’ tournament has someone to introduce proceedings and in The X Factor there are, as we have seen, two such figures: the disembodied voice which became more dramatic as the series progressed giving the impression of this as an important ‘must-see’ Event, and the flesh-and-blood host, first Kate Thornton and then from the fourth season onwards, Dermot O’Leary, whose role in the initial rounds was to act as commentator and interviewer. The voice, which announces the host, who emerges from a sliding panel, in the live shows, is not unique to The X Factor and can be seen in the more traditional game show: just as the voice states 'and here's your host: Dermot - O' - Leary', back in the ITV version of The Price is Right, the voice states 'and here he is: Leslie Crowther', in the SKY One version, the voice announces 'and here's your host: Bob Walman', in Family Fortunes the voice says 'and here's your host' followed, for example, by the name Bob Monkhouse or Max Bygraves or Les Dennis, and in Blind Date 'and here's your host: Ms Cilla Black'. These are just some famous examples. The hosts are often popular entertaining figures; shows, for instance, were titled Larry Grayson's Generation Game, Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game and Jim Davidson's Generation Game, and later Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, and in the case of The X Factor Dermot O'Leary hypes things up and is indeed associated with 'Reality TV' presenting having been lured away from the Big Brother franchise.
However, the disembodied voice in The X Factor has an important function before even introducing the host. One way in which the live shows are coded as a 'must-see' tournament is through the sense that is given of the epic proportions of the contest and that this is the real test. In the boot camp and judges' houses stages, the voice often launches straight into announcing that night's episode but, as is sometimes the case with those rounds, in the first live show, the voice, or occasionally the host, begins the pre-title sequence with lines, often over shots of crowds, giving the few numbers of contestants left such as '50,000 applied to go before 3 judges in the nation's biggest talent search. Now only 9 remain', 'From 75,000 just 12 remain', 'They came in their thousands…last week THE FINAL 12 were revealed', and 'They came from across Britain…TONIGHT THE FINAL 16 SING LIVE FOR THE FIRST TIME'. The sense given is that each subsequent stage of the contest features the contestants to be taken most seriously with those in the live shows having survived all the previous gruelling stages such as the auditions, boot camp and judges' houses. These are seen in clips while the words 'AUDITIONS', 'BOOT CAMP' and 'JUDGES HOUSES' have flashed in bold capitals on the screen, and now the real 'battle' must 'commence'. This links with the sensationalist voice in other shows and with the more tame introductions to shows like Fame Academy.
It also seems reasonable to assert that The X Factor aims to generate all the excitement of a live concert making it 'Event TV' and 'must-see'. The camera pans across the live studio audience loudly cheering and holding placards with the name of the act they are supporting before the host is even dramatically introduced. The judges are announced by the disembodied voice and then by the host and in many cases walk onto the stage from behind a sliding panel on which are contained their images (still or moving). On some occasions, so too do the contestants. Modern aesthetics, associated with music magazines and performances, are used: lighting effects dominate the stage; the names of performers are revealed in lights; the names of performers are also revealed in poster-like fashion just before their act; the acts are also transmitted to the live audience on a number of screens positioned on stage; the acts are sometimes accompanied by bands or dancers and use props; and varying camera angles are used of the performances no doubt in an effort to maintain the television viewer's interest.
It is important to realise that as much as The X Factor is a programme about crowning a winner and rewarding them with a record deal each year, it is meant to entertain the viewers at home so that they tune in week after week in a 'must-see' fashion. It is reasonable to conjecture that not only are a variety of famous judges chosen but also that a variety of types of performer are selected so that the television viewer is not bored (for example, opera singer Rhydian) and that contestants not only go through to the live show based on their vocal abilities but also based on their entertainment value, a point which on-camera ruffles the feathers of music mogul Simon Cowell and provides comic friction between him and the other judges when there is interaction between judge and contestant and between the judges following each performance. Sharon Osbourne remarked in an early season after seeing an act 'We are trying to produce good television and that was good television'. So, seasons have seen Chico in Sharon Osbourne's category (who in a larger-than-life manner shouted the catchphrase each week 'What time is it? It's Chico-time!') and Wagner and John and Edward (commonly known as 'Jedward'), mentored by Louis Walsh. Wagner was indeed added to the line-up of finalists as part of a 'wild card' where we were told that each judge was allowed to add an act to the finalists at the very last moment. Humour was derived from Louis Walsh's continually mispronouncing the name of his own act, Wagner, while on the night contestants had to sing a song from the movies, Simon Cowell conceded that Jedward's rendition of 'Ghostbusters' had been entertaining and that Louis Walsh had chosen the right song for them ('that was sort of good'). In another instance, Cowell defended one of his acts as having provided 'en-ter-tain-ment'.
Also it is reasonable to assume that designed to contribute to The X Factor's status as 'must-see TV' is its coverage in the popular press and the way this coverage is referred to in dramatic fashion in the subsequent episode of the programme. Moments of high drama occur in The X Factor, whether staged or not. The fourth season actually began with the comment that The X Factor had been the most talked about programme of the year with Louis Walsh having supposedly quit with flashes of newspaper headlines to that effect, but the drama also occurs in the live shows. This indeed includes Judges quitting the show; in the second season, for instance, Louis Walsh had already declared he was quitting after friction with Simon Cowell which Walsh says on-air 'wasn't a publicity stunt'; in the fourth season, Sharon Osbourne stated that she was quitting after finding two of her acts in the bottom two; and in the eighth season Kelly Rowland 'quit' after friction with Tulisa Contostavlos. Moreover, in the sixth season, there was a scandal in the press about 'Jedward' being given preferential treatment, in the seventh season there was a scandal involving Gamu not being chosen as a finalist, and in the eighth season one of the members of the boy band Risk left. Techniques are used such as the dramatic disembodied voice stating 'and then it all went wrong' and 'LAST WEEK IT WAS ALL CHANGE ON THE X FACTOR'; recaps of Sharon Osbourne being despondent; and, very significantly, further shots of newspapers like The Sun appearing in quick succession, coming forward towards the television viewer and with the camera moving from left to right across the page to take in the headline ('Sharon Exits', 'Sharon Quits'/'KELLY: I'M OFF Furious Star jets back to US after row with Tulisa'/'GAMU FIX FACTOR', 'GAMOVER', 'GET GAMU BACK IN'/'Risk Rocked As Ash Quits', 'I don't want to be in a boy band'). Sometimes there are even extremely brief visual and aural moments of news presenters to accompany these images.
Another contribution to The X Factor live shows 'must-see' status is the way in which, just as we saw with the earlier stages of the contest, it fits in with the serial form of television. Typically, as in the first rounds of the contest which began, for instance with 'PREVIOUSLY', each episode, following the first live show, would begin with the words 'LAST WEEK' or 'LAST WEEKEND' appearing on-screen and spoken by the disembodied voice. Commonly, there would be a rapid flashing display of a number of the previous weeks' acts, and of a few of the judges' previous critical comments as the voice-over continued, and we would be made to recall the act that was voted off. Emphasis would be placed on contestants' emotions, often accompanied by rising operatic music. Although different visual techniques were employed in these pre-title sequences such as there again being freeze frames on the judges or contestants faces after a previous week's comment, with the screen going to black and white, for dramatic effect, the effect of cardboard cut-outs of the contestants and judges in the 2011 season, the background of flames over the judges pictures and with those coming towards the screen also in the 2011 season, and the scenes shown within a frame on the television screen in the 2013 season, the emphasis on the serial form was the same. After this, again, the voice would commonly say 'TONIGHT' as the word appeared on the television screen, and would give the sense of the continuation of the events. The voice would announce the acts remaining and sometimes the week's theme and, as in the initial rounds, come to say 'IT'S TIME - TO FACE - THE MUSIC', interspersed with judges' comments, before there was a launch into the title sequence.
In these ways The X Factor is rooted in the tradition of successful 'Reality TV' like Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity. Not only are these programmes an extension of the traditional game show in serial form, but the Eviction Night of Big Brother, for example, likewise saw an energetic studio audience holding placards with the name of the housemate they were supporting, and sometimes the presenter referred to the programme's having been in the news emphasising the whole show as 'must-see'.
Article: Andrew O'Day 2014