Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows. At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?
A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).
Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales and Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging
#TheVoice, #XFactor or #BGT and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.