There was something really vital missing from The X Factor this weekend. It’s been a huge part of the show since day one and frankly, it’s just not the same without it. And no, it wasn’t Simon Cowell.
It was any semblance of jeopardy or tension throughout an entire four hours of TV. The dramatic sing-off was gone, replaced with a condensed, sped up and watered down elimination; the sing-off to send an unlucky act home was replaced instead with a sing-off to decide who would be the lucky recipient of a lovely prize.
With half of the acts performing on each night, the Sunday night results show was gone – as was the judges' power to choose who would stay and who would leave.
No wonder viewers – and Dermot O'Leary – were confused as to what was going on. Even the group performance, judges’ entrance and Dermot’s infamous dancing were all victims of the shake-up – chucked in the proverbial skip along with the Jukebox and Dermot's soul.
It's the biggest overhaul the live shows have ever had but it was as if a whole weekend of X Factor had been stripped to its bare bones. The fun had been entirely sucked out to leave only the dull, functional remains. A bit like what's happened to Louis over the last few years.
Both episodes can be summed up thus: here’s Dermot, there are the judges, there's the singing. The vote’s open, the vote’s closed – they’re going home immediately, see you later.
The vote itself was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it affair. Viewers who were deciding which acts they wanted to stay had a grand total of twelve and a half minutes on Saturday night to make their minds up, which had been inexplicably slashed to just five minutes by Sunday.
Maybe next week the vote will be open for a minute, or maybe even 30 seconds? Either way, it’s a far cry from the times when you'd get a good 24 hours, allowing people watching on ITV+1 or on ITV Hub the next morning to have their say. At a time when fewer people are watching TV live, it seems counter-intuitive to have to rely on such a tiny window for people to decide who stays and who goes.
The programme certainly suffered with the enforced absence of Cowell, but it was perplexing as to why all of the judges bar Alesha Dixon had barely anything negative to say about the performances. In fact, more than that, they had absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about the performances.
Of all the judges, Dixon was the only one who had anything interesting, relevant or insightful about her comments. Which is a shame, as she was only here for one week. Can the ‘Get Alesha on The X Factor’ campaign start right here?
Louis was trotting out his “you look like a…” BS, Sharon was typically unsure where she was, who was coming out next or who had just been on, while anything interesting that Nicole might have had to say was lost in a haze of thrusting, gesticulating and arm-waving. Perhaps she’s been having lessons on the side with Bruno Tonioli.
But the outpouring of positivity was indicative of the whole new direction The X Factor has taken for the live shows this year: celebrate talent, lose the novelty and be positive about everything. Yes, even if that includes Leon Mallett’s warblings and the borderline dreadful performance that came from Sean and Conor Price.
And predictably, instead of feeling like a fresh, innovative take for the show, this was just another overhaul in a very, very (very) long line of tweaks.
Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent and I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! have remained enduringly popular in the land of reality TV because they’ve each hit upon a formula that works. The exact same show returns year-on-year, with little to no changes in the format and by and large the same faces presenting and judging. When people switch on their TVs, they know exactly what they’re getting.
But The X Factor? Every year it’s like a bag of Revels – you have to just stick your hand in and hope you don't get the coffee one. Revamp after revamp, they have tried everything from the Jukebox to the Flash Vote to Nick Grimshaw – all brought in with huge fanfare and dropped faster than Simon Cowell falling down a flight of stairs.
For 2017, it’s the loss of the sing-off (arguably one of the best things about X Factor), which has been replaced with the Prize Fight. This is a supposedly uplifting gimmick wherein the top singer from Saturday performs against the act voted the best on Sunday for the chance to win a money-can’t-buy-prize.
In the first week this meant that Grace Davies sang her original song Too Young and Rak-Su performed theirs, Mamacita. The very same song we’d heard about 14 minutes previously when they’d sung, but OK.
After another (!) ridiculously short voting window, in the end it was Grace who won the VIP trip to New York to meet Pink. Ya know, the sort of prize The X Factor used to give away to viewers rather than contestants. This isn’t Surprise Surprise, guys.
It meant the drama in this last half hour of the programme was at absolute zero. Where’s the jeopardy in two good singers singing to win a nice prize? It was near-impossible to care. A far better twist would have been if the singer who came out on top won something relevant to the series – like immunity from next week’s vote, or an automatic place in the semi-final a la BGT’s Golden Buzzer acts.
But a musical prize? It’s irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to poe-tentially, as Louis would say, scupper someone who would otherwise have won the series. The beauty of the vote in shows like Strictly, BGT and I’m a Celeb is that you never know who’s winning the majority each week. It ensures that the best act wins without bias or a backlash.
If Grace Davies or Rak-Su start to top the vote every week, surely there’s either going to be a reversal in their popularity or people will stop voting for them because they presume they are safe.
Either way, revealing who’s won every week feels completely counter-intuitive to the fundamental principles of a reality TV talent show. There’s a reason why all of the others (and I include The X Factor pre-2017 in that) haven’t done this before. Because it’s a bloody dreadful idea.
But if this programme has taught us anything in 13 years, it’s that they’re hands-down the champs when it comes to introducing bloody dreadful ideas. By that token, this year looks set to be their most successful yet.
The X Factor continues next Saturday and Sunday on ITV