Last night’s X Factor caused a bit of a stir, with host Dermot O’Leary spinning the “random” weekly Jukebox to pick a theme for next week’s episode only for it to land on Fright Night. For the Halloween weekend. Hmm…
For some fans online this was a coincidence too far, especially after it seemed like the spinner avoided landing on Fright Night a week early last Sunday – but in many ways the whole thing is symptomatic of a larger problem with The X Factor.
It’s a tired criticism to accuse a show like the X Factor of being “fake” or “fixed”, because to an extent any highly-produced show has to be. No reality or entertainment series is exactly how you see it on screen, from the super-condensed runtimes of panel shows to the secret behind-the-scenes rules of The Apprentice.
However, it feels sometimes like the X Factor takes things bit further. Whenever contestants give “candid” interviews right after they leave the stage they’re always already miked up and properly lit with pre-prepared soundbites, judges’ spats seem highly choreographed and any drama onscreen feels for the most part like something created for the cameras.
Of course this level of control makes for slick TV, but creating and managing drama rather than letting it occur naturally is a race towards diminishing returns. I’ve previously written about how the new series of Robot Wars worked well because it relinquished some of that control, allowing robots to fail or be easily defeated rather than interfere to make the battles more exciting, and therefore making the genuinely thrilling battles feel more so.
X Factor could learn from this example. Every time a conflict is awkwardly ramped up or a “candid” backstage moment is over-produced, any other “dramatic” moments are cheapened – even if they are actually unplanned.
Just look at the Jukebox. Even if is really IS random (as Dermot maintained during the broadcast; we’ve contacted the series for comment) and Fright Night DID come up by an incredibly unlikely chance for Halloween, all the other artificiality of the show has clearly tainted any genuine surprise The X Factor has to offer, to the extent that increasingly savvy fans don’t believe anything they see.
By contrast, Saturday night rival Strictly Come Dancing can have a shocking moment like Ed Balls nearly dropping his partner Katya Jones without accusations of fakery, because it’s built up years of goodwill that what fans are seeing is the truth. And in a week when Strictly pulled in an average of 10.1 million viewers to X Factor’s 5.9 million (only slightly above last week’s series low), it’s worth asking if there’s a tipping point for how much audiences are willing to take when it comes to managed drama.
And maybe that tipping point is a spinning Jukebox.
The X Factor continues on ITV this Saturday at 8.00pm