Is the X Factor Six Chair Challenge too cruel for TV?

There's something rather unsettling about watching teenage girls crying and begging for their place in the competition while a baying crowd screams for blood, says Tim Glanfield

Reality TV and talent shows have always had the same criticisms levelled at them. They’re exploitative, they are cruel, they play on the emotions of the vulnerable for the enjoyment of the masses. The people who make such shows have always strongly defended the formats, arguing that they give people a chance to be “discovered” and that they take their duty of care to contestants extremely seriously. In many shows contestants are screened psychologically in advance, and given support dealing with fame and the media throughout.  

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Ultimately, these are often well-established entertainment formats. And largely speaking the contestants are going into them with their eyes wide open.

But there was something about last night’s X Factor Six Chair Challenge that felt different and slightly uncomfortable. For those unfamiliar with the returning round of the show, the section saw Rita Ora’s “girls” category one by one singing in front of her, the three other judges and a huge arena crowd for a place on one of six seats on stage. Those who impressed got a seat, those who didn’t went home.

But the twist was that once you had a seat, you were still not guaranteed to keep it. And as more singers arrived on stage, if they wowed Rita and the screaming crowd, they were awarded a seat at the expense of one of the worried-looking incumbents.

Cue tears, trembling and begging for their places in front of a baying crowd whose deafening shouting and screaming to “swap, swap, swap” and “get them out” kept everyone glued to their seats at home whilst the dark game of musical chairs played out on stage.

This wasn’t the first Six Chair Challenge ever (we had it last year), but it was the first example of the format this year and it felt that starting with teenage girls (arguably the most vulnerable-looking group) in such a tinderbox atmosphere, the show felt more brutal than perhaps it even intended. 

Rita Ora’s continual exclamations that “this is SO hard” to be part of were echoed in my household as we tried to watch. I’m not sure whether it was particularly because so many of the girls had been preceded (as is customary on X Factor) by a video explaining just how much they “wanted it”/”needed it” before their dreams were crushed on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans, or if it’s just unpleasant to see anyone of any sex or age beg a millionaire for anything on national television… but it made for extremely uncomfortable television.  

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However, I watched it to the end because it was compelling (and that’s what it was meant to be). Indeed, on many levels I enjoyed it, so I certainly can’t condemn it.  But would I watch it again? I’m not so sure…