Somewhere in LA, Simon Cowell is shifting uncomfortably in his high-waisted trousers. It's been a strange year for the X Factor - despite endless publicity (Cheryl being fired, the start of X Factor USA, the new UK judging panel etc) the ratings aren't looking too hot.
Saturday's show managed to gather a crowd of 11.9 million viewers. That's not exactly a small figure, but if I now tell you that this is a shocking 2 million less than at the same stage last year, you'll understand why Simon might be feeling the pressure. On top of this, despite ranting on (in his typically self-assured way) about how the X Factor USA was going to rack up a staggering 20 million viewers, it's first show got a mere 12.2. In a recent interview about X Factor USA, Simon told TV Line that: "We're gonna get there in the end. I do believe that... I also think we're approaching this, rightly so, as a start-of-decade show. You've got to bring in an audience, genuinely, who have not watched these types of shows before. That's the key."
Yeah, good luck with that Simon. Firstly there's the issue of finding people who haven't "watched these types of shows before." After Pop Idol, Pop Stars, Britain's Got Talent, America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance etc. (I could go on) are there really going to be dedicated television watchers that are not already fully accustomed to the format of the modern talent show? No, is the short answer to that.
And how about the fact that he wants to treat it like a start-of-decade show? Now, that makes sense. In the States, once they're hooked, they're hooked. That much we know. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't be surprised if over the pond, Cowell does exactly what he's intending on doing and turns the X Factor USA into a hugely successful, multi-million dollar business.
I like the X Factor. And no, I'm not ashamed to say that. Since the start of the show eight years ago, I have had a vested interest in who would get through to the live finals. For a start, I love musicians. I have many friends who are singers and performers and I spent the best part of two years going religiously to an open mic night once a week, just because listening to live music and in particular, good singing, is one of my greatest pleasures in life.
So it's needless to say that over the last few years I have become a little bit disillusioned with it all. Somehow, the best singers that I'm looking forward to backing (from the regional auditions) seem to be slipping through the net. Half of them don't even get through to boot camp and in their place are a weird array of freaks, fatties and tone-deaf beauties, presumably designed to up the shows ratings. What. A. Shame.
For a few years now, the X Factor UK has been about more than just the singing. As Louis Walsh himself puts it, you've got to be able to sing, you've got to be able to dance and you've got to be able to entertain the people. But really, at the end of the day, what exactly does it say about the British public, that we need the likes of Johnny Robinson, Wagner, Jedward, Chico and other assorted talentless odd-bods, dancing in high production routines and garish costumes, to keep us entertained?
Perhaps it is simply the fate of the long running TV talent show. The X Factor is a business at the end of the day and you can be sure that if there is one thing that runs smoothly behind the scenes, it's the bit where some statistical genius tallies the shows ratings for that week and offers a logistical explanation for why certain people stopped, or started, watching. Do this enough over eight years and you'll have a pretty good idea of what kinds of acts 'sell'. So it is no coincidence then, that every year the X Factor UK becomes less and less about the singing and more and more about the 'shock factor.' Or the 'sob story factor.' or even the 'sex factor' (and by that I mean the person most likely to get off with another finalist in the X Factor house. Ahem, Frankie Cocozza).
In essence, the X Factor UK isn't a singing competition anymore. In fact, it's become something of a freak show. A farce. And ironically, nothing highlights that more than Cowell's brand spanking new baby, the X Factor USA. I had caught a bit of the audition stages over the last few weeks and was blown away by the calibre of the singers. It reminded me how long it's been since I have genuinely got excited about a potential new star. On the X Factor USA, the singers are real, old-fashioned, note perfect vocalists. There was so much serious, unadulterated talent (and just in those early stages) that I was actually asking myself how they would ever pick between them...
This weekend, I happened upon the X Factor USA during a lazy-day-in-bed flick through the sky channels. Over there, they've just got to the Judge's Houses stages and I switched on just as Stacy Francis sang Purple Rain by Prince to Nicole Scherzinger. Please, I urge you to watch it if you missed it, without a shadow of a doubt, that one performance alone puts the X Factor UK to shame.
Stacy Francis is a real star. She is a talented and awe-inspiring vocalist. When I watched her sing this (incredibly difficult) song, both in terms of the melody and the phrasing, I was completely in awe. As shivers went up and down my spine, I couldn't help but imagine that I was at the front of the stage, watching the finale of her arena tour, fans all around me screaming her name. That. Woman. Can. Sing. But I get the feeling that were she over here and auditioning with us, she wouldn't have got through, because aside from her voice, Stacy Francis is a decidedly unremarkable person. Next to her name on the TV screen it simply said "Profession: Stay at home mom". How poignant. This combination is what used to make the X Factor tick.
But who is to blame? We can all sit here pointing fingers and saying that it must be Simon Cowell or maybe ITV or maybe even the people in suits who sign the cheques that have made these (sadly, inevitable) changes. But effectively, the X Factor UK wouldn't have turned into the show it is today if the British public hadn't wanted it to. The X Factor is a well-oiled money making machine, that's it's ultimate goal. So I pose the theory that whoever researched what 'we' want this year, decided that the public are more attracted to the entertainment of a freak show, than they are interested in genuine talent. It's a depressing thought, that the majority of the voting public (that's over 10 million people) really are just jealous, bitter people that prefer to laugh at the camp, shrill voice and bizarre geisha outfits of the likes of Johnny Robinson, than listen to the dulcet tones of brilliant vocalists. Perhaps over here, we really do just want to be endlessly negative and watch people that we can slate week after week, yet not vote off the show.
In essence, shows like the X Factor, that run across international borders, clearly highlight the difference between the two viewing publics. In the USA, it is no generalisation to say that the people believe in something. It's as if their history isn't old enough to forget yet, everyone can achieve something if they just put their minds to it and work hard. They are fiercely patriotic, the age-old idea of the American Dream still prevails and I believe this is what leaves more room in their version, for the optimistic appreciation of talent.
You get the feeling on the X Factor USA that the audiences are less surprised when someone who is, let's say overweight and with bad teeth, has an incredible voice. They would never have referred to Craig Colton as 'unlikely' when he walked out on stage at his first audition. But, why? Maybe it's because they believe in the underdog, maybe it's because they are simply nicer people than us, or maybe as my friend stated adamantly last night, they've "seen people with voices like that all their lives... at church."
So is that what we Brits have come to? Are we just a secular bunch of beer-guzzling morons, who find more fun in complaining at the TV every week than they do actually enjoying it?
Tulisa Contostavlos summed it up well when she pleaded for the security of girl band Rhythmix at the first public vote. Mentioning the 'curse of the girl band' she said something along the lines of "all four of these girls are representing you women out there. They're just normal girls. They won't steal your boyfriends."
At the time, the comment struck me as odd, but the more I went over it in my head, the more sense it made. That is exactly the curse of the girl band. It has nothing to do with talent and it has everything to do with the public. Can it be true, that women in this country are SO insecure, that they wouldn't vote for a group of attractive girls to win, simply because they're attractive? It wouldn't surprise me. Over here, we aren't as hopeful or aspirational. In fact, sometimes I think the voting public in this country are completely disillusioned with a propensity for being wary, suspicious and unsupportive.
Although saying that, we do have a wicked sense of humour... at least we can understand the appeal of old Johnny Robinson in all his drag-act glory and you know what? If the X Factor wasn't running under the rouse of a singing contest, he might even get my vote.