By: Kimberley Bond
In news that came as a surprise to literally no-one, The X Factor has been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
It seems that Simon Cowell was the last person in the UK to properly clock on that the once gargantuan singing competition no longer had a future – despite calls to rest the show, the music mogul insisted on flogging the dead X Factor horse, as it limped out the stable for yet another season.
In its heyday, The X Factor was unmissable Saturday night entertainment – with the show only a small part of the culture that surrounded it.
We would talk about it all week – rumours of backstage feuds and the lives of the contestants would be splashed all over the tabloids in the run-up to Saturday, with the shocking moments from the show becoming our water cooler talk on a Monday.
The season seven finale, won by Matt Cardle and launching the career of One Direction, was watched by 19 million people.
Beyoncé, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera all performed on the show, cementing its status as the most coveted programme to appear on: The X Factor provided ordinary people with a shortcut to fame, fortune and international success.
However, The X Factor lost its Midas touch when it came to attracting the nation’s attention as the years rolled by. The audience numbers crashed from record highs to monumental lows. Memories of Beyoncé seemed almost a lifetime away compared to the finale, where Westlife (God bless them) were wheeled out once more. Its fall from grace was so fast, watching more recent iterations of the show compared to its former glory felt almost embarrassing.
It wasn’t The X Factor’s endless b***hing and sniping, rotating carousel of judges or continuous format tweaks (though they didn’t help either) that resulted in the show finally being pulled after 15 seasons (and two spin-offs). Rather, it’s far simpler than that – it simply got old.
When it first came about in 2004 as the natural successor to Pop Idol, the talent/reality show hybrid format was still relatively young, new and interesting. Viewers became naturally invested in the slickly-produced stories of the young hopefuls as they wrangled their way to superstardom. We were invited to laugh at tone-deaf no-hopers in the audition rooms. They were the funny fodder to be stocked up in bulk before the truly talented, their skills shining even more brightly next to a dazed and deluded contestant from Wigan who’s convinced they’re the next Eminem.
The “jokes” that The X Factor used to serve up in spades simply did not have the same impact later in the 2010s. With mental health becoming a more widely talked about matter, and movements such as #BeKind cropping up on social media, we became increasingly uncomfortable at seeing people having their dreams crushed for a cheap laugh. But in a less wholesome, less altruistic reason is that seeing Simon Cowell put someone down time and time again just gets boring. There’s only so many times we can giggle with glee at a dour, “It’s a no from me”.
Similarly, the deeply crafted narratives for the successful singers, the ‘sob stories’, became disinteresting. The cliché that each person had a tale of difficulty they had to overcome was overcooked by producers to the point viewers can almost predict when Fix You by Coldplay was going to start blaring in the background and Cheryl was going to wipe some tears away from her dainty features.
But overall, The X Factor simply does not provide the grand spectacle we’ve become accustomed to in more recent years, being easily outstripped by newer, fresher shows with more interesting concepts. The relatively recent ‘Korean wave’ has seen an introduction of exciting new formats that have thrived across the world, changing the landscape of Saturday night entertainment shows and bursting onto prime-time in a vision of vivid technicolour.
Programmes such as The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice have provided scenes that are frankly utterly bizarre but ultimately so addictive that they’ve become phenomenon’s in their own right, making simpler singing shows like The X Factor look tired and stale.
“Korean culture is very unique and we’re not afraid to try new things,” Albert Park, the creator of I Can See Your Voice, explained to the Royal Television Society. “The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice changed the game and helped our formats to shine in international markets.
“We have a tradition of comedy in our programmes, and Korean audiences are incredibly trend driven. Culturally, we’re a people who love to sing, so singing formats are always popular.”
Derek McLean, the Executive Producer of The Masked Singer on ITV, agrees that there’s still life in the singing format just yet – but it needs to evolve away from its more basic formats in order to keep an audience hooked.
“Before, we were seeing people saying, ‘There’s too many singing formats,’” he explained. “But really, I think we were just going too far away from what the public love. What these shows from Korea show you is that it’s a tiny turn of the wheel to make it something really different. It still keeps the obvious tropes people love, it’s not that much of a change, it’s just a brilliant tweak.”
Apart from the fresh ideas, the spectacle and the ‘shock factor’ the new Korean formats provide, producers agree that their success may come from something far simpler than the razzmatazz these programmes provide – something The X Factor had forgotten about a long time ago.
Rachel Ashdown, who brought I Can See Your Voice to the BBC in her role as Commissioning Editor of BBC Entertainment, explained: “Entertainment should always be joyful. In the past, that may have been forgotten a little bit, but I think it’s important as producers that we remind ourselves that you watch an entertainment show to forget about something else, to enjoy yourself and enjoy spending time with people. It should be joyful and fun. Everything we do should have warmth in it.”
Derek agreed, saying: “With The Masked Singer and Dancer – we were clear to never critique or criticise performances. That’s not what the show is about. It’s meant to be joyous and uplifting.
“These Korean formats have come at specific times where people are struggling. We needed joy and hope and these programmes provided that to audiences who just needed to escape.”