After yet another revamp, is Simon Cowell out of ideas for The X Factor?
Whilst other reality TV shows are thriving, The X Factor has lost its identity and lost its way, says Frances Taylor
The X Factor has become one of TV’s biggest quandaries.
Yet again we’ve had the announcement that the show is undergoing a revamp and a refresh. Old faces Louis Walsh, Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne are being swept aside (although Sharon will confusingly appear later in the series – more on that below), making way for a new, fresh, exciting panel.
Only Simon Cowell remains, while a press release states that “the developments signal the beginning of a new era” for The X Factor. Well, we’ve heard this before.
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The announcement that the judges would be stripped out, with only Cowell remaining, was first made in 2015. Just three years ago we were presented with a freshened-up, new-look and tellingly younger panel of judges: Cheryl, Rita Ora and Nick Grimshaw alongside Cowell.
And the resulting series is generally regarded as the worst in X Factor history. And not just because of Olly Murs' epic blunders.
Grimshaw looked uncomfortable and everything viewers loved about Cheryl the first time she was a judge disappeared. And so, too, did the viewers. The overnight ratings for 2015's series’ debut were two million down on the previous year.
It was deemed something of a failure, and so for the next season the ‘down with the kids’ approach was scrapped, and Sharon, Louis and Nicole were all promptly reinstated. And now in 2018, two years later, they’ve all been ditched and done away with. Again.
Simon Cowell, Syco, Thames and ITV are clearly out of ideas when it comes to The X Factor. Whilst it used to be one of TV’s behemoths, pulling in gigantic ratings and making huge global stars of its contestants (from One Direction to Little Mix), that era is over.
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Format change upon panel change upon scheduling change have taken place over its many seasons, each one inching The X Factor further and further away from what viewers originally knew and loved about the show.
Every year, experimental format tweaks are brought in and almost immediately dumped, like the Jukebox or last year’s winners’ prize vote, which producers hoped would hook in viewers and return the show to its former glory. And yet time and time again, the opposite happens.
Tweak after tweak has meant that viewers coming to the show each year have no idea what to expect. It’s a blind pick n’ mix – stick your hand in the bag (ie. turn on ITV on a Saturday night in the autumn) and good luck with whatever you pull out.
This year, it's already been announced that Sharon will be a judge – but for the live shows only. Why? This hasn't ever been asked for or implemented on X Factor before, so there's zero need to start now. And, forgive me, but are swathes of viewers going to tune in specifically to see Mrs O during the lives? Confidently, I can say 'no'.
There’s a reason why audiences for Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing come back and even grow year on year. The programmes are confident and comfortable in their formats; they’ve struck upon a formula that works, they avoid huge tweaks and gimmicks, and you know precisely what you’re getting when the shows roll around every year.
Before this year’s series of Love Island began, the ITV2 show's producers emphasised the need to stick with what they knew: “The format works, the worst thing would be to change it.” And their record ratings prove they're right.
And yet that’s exactly the pitfall The X Factor has fallen into. Simon Cowell clearly doesn't know what to do with the show anymore.
It still brings ITV four million viewers on Saturday nights – a figure that might be tricky to replicate with a new format – but dropping The X Factor entirely for five or so years and then bringing it back with all the simplicity and purity of the early days could assure its long-term success and give it a renewed appeal.
Currently, the only thing this piecemeal tinkering year after year does is make Cowell look unsure of his own programme – and turn viewers off in their droves.
Even more changes is the last thing The X Factor needs right now.
The X Factor returns to ITV this autumn