Monday, October 31, 2011

Has the tide turned for X Factor?

Here's my column which appeared in Broadcast, 23rd October:

It’s been nearly three years since I last wrote this column – so what’s changed? Viewed from here in Alderley Edge, the most important development is BBC North at MediaCityUK, currently powering up and sending a surge of energy through the North’s production sector.
Unexpectedly, BBC3 is also moving north, a broadcast channel to add to the big programme brands. The sheer scale of MediaCityUK, the new talent and demographic of BBC3, the innovation of Future Media – talent, teens, technology – should all help the BBC address its traditional deficit in terms of ‘portrayal’ of the North, particularly with younger viewers.
It is some task, because in primetime, ITV ‘owns’ the North – look at the top programmes, starting withCoronation Street in fifth place, with 9.3 million viewers, and then in 8th, 9th, 13th and 15th, followed by six entries for Emmerdale, the highest at 7.5 million. That’s a lot of drama from the North.
In terms of impact, a new high-profile drama or long-running serial could move the dial for the BBC. WithSpooks ending on 5.1 million/18% on Sunday on BBC1, there’s certainly room for one. And consider how quickly Downton Abbey engaged the audience, with 9.3 million this week, holding steady week on week despite the slippage from X Factor Results. However, although fictionally it’s a northern drama – located in Yorkshire – we all know that it’s actually made in Posh-shire.
And so to the big question: has the tide turned for The X Factor? The papers are comparing it with last year and gleefully searching for the missing 2 million viewers, compared to last year. Week on week, the case is harder to stand up as the slippage is less dramatic – Sunday night’s results show slipped back to 11.3 million/40% share, down from last week’s 11.6 million/42%. Saturday night’s ‘rock theme’ show had 10.1 million/39% share, compared with 10 million/40% last week. If it is short of its all-time high, it’s not exactly on its uppers.
But there is a problem. The capricious judges’ cull on the first live show was a ‘twist’ too far. The X Factor belongs to its audience – they decide who the winner will be – so what was the point of the judges usurping the viewers and slinging out that young girl from Middlesbrough?
That’s when the doubts started. Since then, some acts have been dull, others have sung badly and it feels like every other minute there’s a sponsored competition or commercial break. This week, sensing trouble, the PR was cranked up – Frankie was in the papers, the judges fell out over the definition of ‘rock’, there was talk of bullying contestants, Kelly walked out. Expect more of this. It’s still must-see TV, even if Strictly is giving X Factor more of a run, with 9.6 million/38% share, slightly up on last week.
At the start of the autumn ‘new judges’ season, it seemed ITV had all the answers (apart from That Sunday Night Show, obviously) and it promo-ed a promising series of travelogues. But Billy Connolly’s Route 66 was a bit pedestrian and although Joanna Lumley is always great value, her Greek Odyssey has too much economic bad news for a feel-good doc; this week’s 3.7 million/16% share was in the same numbers territory as ITV’s The Jonathan Ross Show on 3.7 million/18% share. Dare we say it – has ITV gone a bit too BBC1-ish with these shows?

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