OPINION: Why we’ve lost the X Factor

We promised ourselves we wouldn’t get attached this year. All the tears, the shouting at the TV screen, the air-punching after a great rendition, the incessant tweeting after a shock result. We swore we would observe objectively as Dermot pranced and hugged his way through Saturday nights and the judging panel slowly become a send-up of themselves (Louis in particular is getting too meta for our taste. We preferred it when he stayed off Twitter). Alas, here we are, writing a Dear John to our most beloved TV show. We’ve watched it for a decade as it rose from Popstars replacement to TV event of the year (anyone who thinks that Beyoncé-Burke 2008 isn’t a defining telly moment of our generation needs a tight slap), and now we can’t bear to see its slow decline just as they’ve announced a new three-year deal with ITV.

The signs were apparent last year, we just chose to ignore them. It was telling that we were left with James Arthur battling Jahmene in a competition that is notoriously unfavourable to male winners. And in third place? Christopher Maloney, a sure-fire sign that the British public’s dry sense of humour hasn’t waned a fraction in the face of reality TV. Tulisa threw in her best impression of the undead, Barlow grimaced as he was forced to champion the nan-loving Scouser with Cocozza-esque fervour, and Saturday night TV found an unlikely saviour in Nicole Scherzinger.

As ratings dip on both sides of the Atlantic – despite the US version genuinely having a treasure chest of talent – it’s time for a little introspection. There have been countless changes that have read like a catalogue of errors, all in an attempt to remain (to quote the Cowell) ‘fresh and current’. At every stage it hasn’t worked, and pushed us further away from the show that we know and love. Of course, we’ll stick with the pop culture behemoth till the bitter end; however, from the viewpoint of genuine fans of the show, this is why 2013 has lost the X Factor:

The judging panel. If you’re not bringing back Cowell, then Scherzy and Walsh are good choices. Gary Barlow has never looked entirely comfortable in the role and ever since he announced his departure live on air, you can sense him counting down the days till he picks up his P45. Then, as the show teeters on the precipice of musical credibility (see: Little Mix), you dial it back down to theatrical, wheeling on a woman who – while effortlessly entertaining – only has a career through association. Not only that, there’s a distinct lack of spark between them all on a Saturday night; we miss the days of water-throwing and staged storm-outs, of needless bickering and glycerine tears. If it weren’t for the endless Scher-zingers, we’d have lost hope a long time ago. Our recommendations for 2014? Cowell, Walsh, Minogue and Lily Allen. Trust us.

‘The Room’/ double auditions. You almost nailed it here. Almost. Restoring the room audition is a move we’ve been championing for ages, and it certainly added a freshness to the auditions that had been missing for years. Once again, it felt like we were quietly sniggering at a contestant from our own home, rather than engaging in arena-wide bullying. And when a star was discovered, it was on the strength of their voice in that pin-drop silence, rather than the wave of whoops and cheers upon which mediocrity (and a yodeller) sailed. But then you bloody well went and brought back those arena auditions, leaving us stuffed with the same contestants for an entire weekend. Not only that, it recalls the fundamental problem we have with arena auditions in the first place: the first live show should be a culmination of the ordinary person’s journey, the first time they hit the bright lights and an audience, the first time we see them soar or crumble as a pop star. With the arena auditions, we know they can do it already. They’ve had their moment in front of thousands and, if anything, the live shows are a step down.

Boot camp. This twist we actually liked. A part of us revelled in this skewed version of musical chairs, the squirming from both judges and contestants like an abhorrent P.E. class. In the absence of any real drama or inter-contestant strife, it’s a welcome change. We’d keep this one.

Judges’ Houses. Apostrophe problems notwithstanding, you really have to ask yourself serious questions when Louis Walsh – not even mentoring the groups – requires THREE guest judges to pick his boys.

The makeovers. Bring back the wind tunnel. That is all.

Song choices and themes. Whose bright idea was it to kick off the first live show in a mass-appealing pop competition with 80s week? Half the contestants weren’t even born, half the voters didn’t know the songs, and essentially it seemed an exercise in pandering to both the ‘perceived’ ITV audience and execs who have more fingers on a Walkman than on the pulse of the charts. It’s almost as if we’re not in 2013, and this is perhaps where the UK version is best served taking tips from its American cousin: the song choices are more up-to-date, the musical direction is tailored properly, and even the songs on theme weeks deviate from the norm. Basically, it shouldn’t take Hannah being in the bottom two for us to hear Wrecking Ball. (Although, strangely, Big Band Week was a pleasing success thanks to that live band.)

New format changes. Remember the Flash Vote and an unwanted Caroline Flack roaming in a corrugated shipping container? Good times.

The contestants. When it comes down to it, all of the above are mere frills – the contestants are what really matter, right? Right… in a sense. Unfortunately for the X Factor, we’ve already been spoilt by the old ways. Of our 12 finalists, we demand a Wagner, a Jedward, a Goldie Cheung, a Souli Roots. This year all we had to jeer at was Sam Callahan, and now that he’s gone we’re back to being a rather boring, run-of-the-mill talent competition focused on ‘credibility’ (y’know, because that clearly worked out very well for The Voice). The thing that the X-Factor needs to realise is that it creates credibility without even trying: by sticking to what it does best, we still had a Leona, Alexandra, One Direction. Perhaps someone took the ‘joke act’ criticism to heart, forgetting that we as Brits secretly revel in complaining and, without an oddball to distract us, we’re now complaining about the show’s exposed flaws.

We do believe in the X Factor, we really do. In a weird way, we actually want it to exacerbate its soullessness, to not give a crap what people think and continue delivering entertaining television at the cost of talent and occasionally morality. We want it to revel in all the charges levelled against it and own them. We want it to rise beyond the inevitably limp finale of Sam Bailey (lovely voice, would never buy the album) and Nicholas McDonald (proving the power of the regional vote), sacrificing the international potential of Hannah, Tamera, and Rough Copy. We want it to be the antithesis of the safe, mollycoddled world of Strictly. Hell, we want it to get back its own X factor before it’s too late.