This Saturday sees the first episode of Britain’s Got Talent play out opposite the finale of The Voice UK. As heavyweight contests go, it’s like Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier – the two have been head-to-head since The Voice launched back in 2012, and they’ve both boasted winning streaks.
But just as recent boxing headlines seem to threaten the sport, there’s a shadow hanging over the television talent-show industry. Once a powerful generator of ratings and proper stars – Susan Boyle, One Direction, Leona Lewis – the various formats have seen viewers trickle away. Last year’s The X Factor was trounced in the ratings by Strictly Come Dancing, but was also beaten by Countryfile on three nights. Last autumn ITV outbid the BBC to host The Voice – and some have suggested it may even replace X Factor next year.
Simon Cowell is fully aware of viewing fashions, as Britain’s Got Talent starts its tenth season. “Look, things change and you can see the trend at the moment on TV is towards an older audience,” he says. “If Countryfile is getting nine or ten million consolidated viewers, it’s staggering. You can’t really argue with that. But then you look at other competitive shows doing five million – which is still nothing to be ashamed of – and there’s not that 20 million audience any more. The fact is Britain’s Got Talent is literally the biggest show on the planet – what’s not to love?” He’s referring, of course, to the 58 countries across the globe that broadcast versions of his show.
A clip from this week’s episode
Showbusiness PR consultant Mark Borkowski explains, “The problem these formats have is a dwindling pool of talent – and we’ve reached the point where we can play word bingo with everything the contestants and judges say. Plus there are very few presenters who can host live TV – as Olly Murs proved.”
Britain’s Got Talent’s executive producer, Amelia Brown, doesn’t agree that the pool is drying up – but she does admit that it’s getting harder to fish in it. “With the first few series we had the advantage of being a new show with Ant and Dec and Simon Cowell so we just had to make sure we got the word out about the auditions – and we had a surge of interest, which peaked for series two and three,” says Brown. “Now more people know about us, but fewer are prepared to wait in line outside the auditions.”
As a result, the process of finding contestants has gone from a six-month trawl to a year-round operation. There are still the open auditions in big cities, but there’s a new team tasked with visiting pubs, karaoke bars and talent contests in small towns and villages around the country.
Brown insists that the recent influx of foreign contestants isn’t down to an overseas recruitment campaign. “Our YouTube page is huge, we’re on in loads of countries and everyone, even if their country has no connection to the UK, wants to perform in front of the royal family,” she says. “We could fill the show with singers 100 times over, but we’re a variety show so we can’t do that – we have to open each series with something the viewers have never seen before.”
Which can be tricky, as success breeds many children. For years producers struggled to persuade magicians to appear, but last year’s second place for illusionist Jamie Raven has had a dramatic effect: now they’re snowed under with magic acts.
“There’s something very British and eccentric about it,” Cowell says. “There’s no pressure to find a recording star and it doesn’t really matter who wins – it’s just feel-good. There are days when everyone’s been rubbish, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve completely wasted the last 14 hours of my life.’ But then somebody walks on and it all changes. There have been years – I’m not going to say which – where it ends and you go, ‘Well, that wasn’t eally worth it.’ But thankfully they’re rare.”
Cowell’s confident ITV will keep going with both The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. But industry experts see new trends emerging that threaten his security.
“I’m a big fan of Britain’s Got Talent, but I’d argue that those formats are dying because they lack authenticity,” says Liam Humphreys, controller of factual entertainment at Channel 4. “When we did The Island with Bear Grylls, we found that setting up the concept and then removing much of the production process – including the camera crew – made for a more authentic experience. I think that’s the future of factual entertainment now. It’s no coincidence that Great British Bake Off comes from the BBC’s documentary department.”
BGT judges David Walliams, Alesha Dixon, Amanda Holden and Simon Cowell with hosts Ant & Dec
Cowell groans at this. “If you’d have told me five years ago that the biggest competitive show on TV would be about making bread, I’d have thought you’d gone nuts – or that one of the biggest shows on Channel 4 would be people watching TV at home. I hate those shows, because we’re not making them – but they’ve done a brilliant job.
“I still think BGT could be the last show standing – there’s something about it. It’ll be on in 20 years’ time and you’ll be having conversations with Eric [his two-year-old son] about it. I took him down to filming last week, and sat him in my chair. He actually watched the show and enjoyed the acts.”
Cowell laughs. “He’s got my blood in him…”
Britain’s Got Talent returns to ITV tonight (Saturday 9th April) at 7.00pm