Can going backwards really help The X Factor go forwards?

The return of Sharon Osbourne and the backroom auditions will not take the talent show back to its 2010 glory days, says Tim Glanfield

Everyone’s “officially” known it for weeks, the tabloids have been reporting it for months, but today we can now officially, officially say it – Sharon Osbourne is returning to The X Factor. 

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And as if that wasn’t enough 2007 déjà vu for you, the ITV show has also revealed it will reintroduce the backroom audition stage – you remember, when the judges sat in a small hotel conference room and made the hopefuls caterwaul whilst standing on a gaffer tape “x” . This will act as an additional stage to the arena auditions, meaning singers will have to pass two appearances in front of the judges to get to bootcamp. And viewers will have to watch another stage of singing before things move on.

This “exciting range of new changes”, as they’re described by Syco, is presumably designed to help reinvigorate the series, which has been losing viewers since it peaked in 2010 with an incredible series average of 14.13m across 30 episodes. 

So a return to 2007 is the answer, right?

Erm, well, computer says no. In fact, it seems like it was around the time Sharon left that it changed gear and became the mega talent show that Syco and ITV are so keen to resurrect and preserve three months a year on Saturday nights for all eternity. 

Between series two and four, all of which featured Sharon as a judge, the show was still finding its feet – bobbing around an average audience of 8.5m, and although still a huge programme, not enormous. 

It was when Sharon was replaced by the nation’s sweetheart Cheryl Cole in 2008 (season 5) that the viewing figures went galactic. Suddenly X Factor put on 2m viewers across the series as the public warmed to the classic dynamic of Cowell with “his ladies” Cheryl and Dannii, and his pantomime dame Louis Walsh (pictured, above). 

This electric combination gave the show three enormous series – Cowell had found his team, with himself at the heart of it. The backroom auditions were dropped in favour of arena versions and the viewing figures rose year on year to over 14m by 2010. At the moment when Matt Cardle sang “When We Collide” almost 20m people were watching – and it felt like The X Factor would inherit the Earth. 

And then it happened – Cowell, Cole and Minogue were gone. The bubble burst and the dream was over. In the past few years, “young blood” has failed to capture the public’s imagination in the same way… so why do Syco think a return to 2007 will help do that any better?

The truth is, X Factor is a cult of the personality. Without Simon Cowell it is like an out of shape boxer, talking a good fight – but lacking the killer instinct to deliver a knockout blow. The viewers want to see the Svengali figure pulling the strings on screen, not hear about him barking instructions down the phone to producers from his poolside in Los Angeles. 

The fact that, even though he’s not judged the show for three years, the newspapers (and websites) still obsess about Cowell’s moves above all others is proof that it is he who sells papers and he that made The X Factor what it is today. 

The X Factor will run a little longer. It’s still a cash cow, and still commands some of the biggest audiences on British television. However, unless Cowell is prepared to come back home and leave his US spin-off in someone else’s hands – no number of returning faded stars alone (including Cheryl Cole) can rescue the show from an inevitable decline into ratings mediocrity. 

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Simon, without wishing to inflate your ego any further… your X Factor needs YOU. What are you going to do about it?