Changes to the X Factor judging panel is no new thing. As soon as the series champ has done crying their way through their winner’s song talk turns to next year and who will be back. And while Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw is actually the only entirely new judge – Simon and Cheryl are old hats (for want of a better phrase) and Rita Ora was a guest judge in 2012 – it feels like there’s a new energy coming from the show. The line-up is relevant, with X Factor sources seemingly genuinely excited about a panel that’s “fresh and exciting”. It seems to me bosses are sending a clear message: we’re looking to the future, we want to appeal to a new generation of viewers… and we’re planning to be around for many more years to come.
There’s been eleven series after all. With X Factor’s three-year deal with ITV coming to an end next year, the show could have started moving towards a greatest hits theme, bow out next year after an ode to series gone by. They’ve already brought back former contestant turned Xtra Factor host Olly Murs, alongside his original co-host Caroline Flack to front the main show. They could have popped Dannii Minogue back on the panel, got Wagner to audition again, have Jedward guest appear at Judges’ Houses. Perhaps even do a champion of champions? Louis Walsh would have had to stick around of course. OK, it might not have done them any favours in the annual ratings battle with Strictly Come Dancing, but hey, it could have been a jolly old trip down memory lane and then we all could have moved on.
But Cowell and co are seemingly doing the opposite and cranking things up a gear. While I’m told it’s yet to be discussed, right now it doesn’t feel to me like 2017 will be X Factor-less. Of the new judges, sure Grimshaw comes without reality show experience or knowledge of what it’s like to stand up on stage and sing himself. But that’s why there’s a mix of judges on the panel. Let Cheryl and Rita guide on performance, nerves and what it takes to be a pop star. Grimshaw’s a Radio 1 DJ, with plenty to offer in terms of what’s – to borrow a Rita Ora track name – hot right now. He’ll be among those giving the winner air time, and he knows what will and won’t get an artist on the radio.
While falling Breakfast Show figures are often quoted, the station’s controller Ben Cooper says Grimshaw is doing what he was asked to do, attract a younger audience and keep them happy by “scaring off the over-30s”. X Factor is a family show, but it’s the younger fans that are going to queue up to catch a glimpse of the next big pop star, bug their parents for albums, t-shirts, dolls, perfume and the like. Cowell often credits the fans for fast-tracking One Direction’s global success. So as much as it’ll take some getting used to not having Mr Walsh telling everyone they remind him of a young someone or other, let’s see what Grimshaw has to say about where they fit in the market right now.
Then there’s Ms Rita Ora. X Factor sources tell me it was regarded as a “brave” move to add the then up and comer onto the panel as a guest judge three years ago, and very much see this year’s stint as her “coming home”. Of course, Ora’s coming from the BBC’s singing talent show The Voice, for which she also had an offer to return as a coach. It’ll be a blow to The Voice – everyone likes to be picked first in PE, right? – with show insiders telling me that they were “very keen” to have her back. But two shows offering her a space is a testament to her role as an advisor to wannabe artists, and her pulling power of viewers (especially youngsters). The chart-topper is, like Cheryl, living and breathing what those standing on the ‘X’ want and she can tell them how to get there.
Of course, the show still boasts experience. The big boss is in attendance. Cowell’s word will still undoubtedly feel like the final one. He’ll do his “I’m sorry… it’s just my opinion” and get booed, while secretly knowing everyone listens and stops voting for the acts he doesn’t like. Cheryl, back for her fifth series, knows just when to wind him up… and can she whip up the emotions with her dainty tears.
While I personally remain despondent thanks to the fact there’ll be no ‘Dermot Dancing’ from the former host, and I hold out hope Mr Walsh will do some sort of dramatic Judges’ Houses return, it does feel like this is a series to really get excited about. There’s a sense of joyful, yet nervous, uncertainty and who doesn’t love that on live TV?
X Factor returns to ITV later this year