The Commercial Factor: The X Factor and ITV
by Andrew O'Day
Part 2: "Another factor undoubtedly contributing to viewers' voting will be sexual desire."
As a programme which blends the television forms of series and serial, The X Factor Results Show, carrying on a tradition from Big Brother, Fame Academy, and Strictly Come Dancing, is important in revealing which acts would be returning the following week and move closer to being crowned The X Factor winner and which act or, in the case of a double elimination, acts would be eliminated. Theorist Roland Barthes referred to 'the hermeneutic code' as the setting and solution of puzzles and just as this code is evident in fictional drama it is also present in The X Factor where the enigma is which acts would survive.
The programme is designed to get as many television viewers as possible to contribute to this result by voting. This is one significant way in which money is made for ITV, for Simon Cowell's company SyCo, and for phone companies. Indeed, not only are viewers encouraged to vote by phone but they have been invited by the host to enter phone-in competitions to win extravagant prizes. However, at the end of each main show, and at the start of the Results Show, the host would remind the television viewer of a brief clip of each of the acts accompanied by the number to call to vote, telling them that if they want to keep their favourite in the contest they must vote and that they are 'the boss'. Indeed, from the 2009 season the Results Show moved from later on the Saturday evening to the Sunday giving people more time to vote and was a longer show with famous singers performing, announced by the disembodied voice. In 2012 viewers were shocked when Dermot O'Leary announced lines were open for voting before the acts had even performed. At 35p, votes made by landline are significantly cheaper than those made by mobile phone which can be staggering and add up considerably if a person votes numerous times in the space of an evening. Voting by text is also cheaper but, for example, in 2011 viewers were not permitted to vote in The X Factor final in this way, though they could vote using their red button. However, as of the 2014 season of The X Factor viewers are for the first time able to vote free of charge by downloading an app on their smartphones. The interactive nature of this contest, though, links The X Factor with Big Brother, I'm A Celebrity and the BBC's Fame Academy and Strictly Come Dancing.
For some television viewers, the excitement of the live studio audience, with their T-shirts and placards, will be infectious causing them to vote. The acts are also, on one level, treated as hopefuls; they narrate what winning will mean for them with this no doubt getting some viewers to vote. Another factor undoubtedly contributing to viewers' voting will be sexual desire. The acts are treated as 'made-over' and the 'sexy' celebrities many aspire to meet, for instance, seen signing autographs. Even without conducting an audience survey, it is reasonable to suggest that the show will attract many of those (teenage girls and gays) who like looking at pin-ups of young male pop-stars in teenage music magazines, the very magazines that would feature pin-ups of these acts. This is what Cheryl Cole (now Cheryl Fernandez-Versini) meant when she said that Lloyd Daniels would appeal to girls and that One Direction were her 'guilty pleasure'.
We now turn to the atmosphere of the Results Show. Tension is built up for the television viewer, as well as for the contestants, during the 'Results' Show. Kate Thornton, for example, states in one show that the result is 'painfully close between the bottom three', eliciting a gasp from the studio audience to be mirrored by many of us, and in another show remarks that it is 'time to bring back the people nervously awaiting the results'. Dermot O'Leary similarly notes on one occasion that after the high drama of the evening things are 'very tense indeed' and that the contestants were 'feeling the nerves tonight', and in another instance refers to the 'nervous acts'. Thornton and O'Leary are therefore highlighting the overall atmosphere of apprehension in the studio which would be shared by many viewers at home. Both Thornton and O'Leary would read out the Results pausing after stating that 'the next act to return next week is -'. The camera would move in on the different contestants with the soundtrack providing a sense of intensity and resembling a heartbeat, before the host revealed the name of the safe act to displays of elated emotion by the parties.
As noted, ITV has its eyes on building a devoted audience who will return week after week and also wants to keep viewers engaged with the channel so that they will not flick over to watch something else but will watch the advertisements. This returns us to the notion of 'channel flow' as opposed to 'viewer flow' where audiences construct their own viewing pattern facilitated by the remote control. A pause has the potential effect of losing viewers. A common strategy employed by presenter Kate Thornton in the early years of The X Factor was as follows. After revealing most of the acts that would be returning the following week as a result of the public vote, she would tell us that out of the three remaining acts only one more would definitely be back and that the other two would have to compete head-to-head in a showdown for the Judges' Vote which would also involve the generating of suspense. At this point, she would say 'The final act to be returning this week IS', and, as with the previous announcements there would then be a pause, at which point the tension would be built up with shots of the remaining contestants accompanied by the heartbeat sound. However, unlike in the previous cases, the suspense would not be diluted through the revelation of the final act to have made it through but rather Kate Thornton would teasingly say 'we'll find out after the break', keeping many members of the home audience hooked. This strategy, however, was for the most part dropped by the time Dermot O'Leary took over as host, but has on occasions resurfaced when O'Leary is to announce the final act definitely safe, and is also one we have also seen became used in 'The Six Seat Challenge'.
An intertextual approach reveals how this technique tied in with ITV's goals as a commercial broadcaster more generally. This technique can be seen, for example, in a more traditional game show where the stakes are high, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here the hermeneutic code was evident where presenter Chris Tarrant would commonly leave audiences on an enigma, whether a contestant had provided a correct answer and was about to win a huge sum of money or whether they had answered incorrectly and gambled a large proportion of their winnings away, to be resolved after the advertisement break. Audiences were therefore encouraged to remain with the commercials to see the resolution of this enigma at the beginning of the next segment. More recently, the game show The Chase also employs this strategy at a key moment when the contestant has answered a question which may have won him or her a significant amount of money.
This is the game show's equivalent to the dramatic moments which punctuate fictional dramas at advert breaks, and is akin to the cliff-hangers at the end of episodes of such programmes. These dramatic moments at commercial breaks can be seen in all fictional dramas: mysteries like Agatha Christie's Poirot with each new 'segment' implicitly promising to add to the resolution of the puzzle, with some ending on Poirot finally realising how stupid he has been not to see the solution, and also in soap operas which rely on high moments of emotion and drama. The aim in all cases is to get the viewer to remain with the channel, through the commercials, for the continuation of the programme ('channel flow') and shows how The X Factor is far from unique. Therefore, an intertextual approach goes beyond looking at comparisons between The X Factor and other 'Reality TV' contests and traditional game shows.
All these weekly instalments lead to a semi-final and final which fit in with the notion of 'Event TV' we have seen (contestants are eloquently dressed, they perform alongside famous artistes, who may be their mentors, and clips show the support for them from their home town) as well as 'must-see TV' where viewers consume advertisements and may vote. The viewer vote alone decides the winner whose name is revealed at the end of the show after a long suspenseful pause. Again, in the pre-title sequence of the final, and sometimes the semi-final, the dramatic disembodied voice lures television viewers in, emphasising the scale of the contest and that out of the many thousands who applied only a few remain standing. The voice tells us that week by week contestants 'fell' or came 'crashing down' and some pre-credit sequences begin with the number of contestants as it totalled at the start appearing on screen and falling to the low number that are still in the contest. The final is rooted in the tradition of sports tournaments, the traditional game show, 'Reality TV', and drama series. For example, in the 2004 final, the voice in the pre-title sequence stated that one contestant would leave with a £1 million record deal and that the other would get nothing, which echoes a voice's assertion at the beginning of the BBC's game show The Weakest Link and presenter Anne Robinson's statement at the beginning and ends of episodes where an entire 'game' takes place within one edition. Also, the very notion of a final can be seen in 'Reality TV' like Big Brother. However, the idea of a 'final' can additionally be seen in drama serials as well as in series with 'story-arcs' which combine a different narrative each week with an on-going narrative which reaches a climax in the final episode of a season. The final episode, as it were, offers the loyal viewer a pay-off, encouraging the television viewer, as with these other programmes, to keep watching. 'Reality TV' both follows in this tradition and, as Matt Hills, notes influences the narrative strategies of other dramas.
We have so far seen that it is important to ITV that television viewers watch the commercial breaks but the sponsorship of the programme is also key. Telephones are significant since viewers can use them to vote as well as using mobile phones to send text messages to friends, putting posts on Facebook walls and now Tweeting using the hash tag #factor, which appears on-screen, as they watch events unfold. The X Factor has indeed been described as the most Tweeted about programme. The sponsor of The X Factor for the first three seasons was a mobile phone manufacturer, Nokia, and has recently been TalkTalk/TalkTalk TV which provides mobile, television and broadband services, so the nature of the programme links with the sponsor just as was the case with some other shows like Blind Date, sponsored by Going Places, 'The Holiday Matchmaker'. Complaints were made when it was clear that Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh were using Nokia phones to send text messages to one another about the acts in an early show. For sponsoring a programme on ITV simply means that a short credit sequence is placed around a programme with a brand's logo, meaning that through this a particular brand becomes affiliated with that programme.
The Xtra Factor is transmitted on ITV2 immediately after Saturday and Sunday night's editions of the main programme and its role is to continue to generate interest in this commercial property and increase viewer participation. The idea of having The Xtra Factor is not 'unique' as its launch was prompted by the success of the multitude of Big Brother spin-offs, most notably E4 companion show Big Brother's Little Brother. Moreover, The Xtra Factor cannibalises content from 'Reality TV' programming such as this and its spin-offs. Like Big Brother spin-offs, The Xtra Factor includes additional footage; here, for instance, of audition material. Somewhat akin to Big Brother's Big Mouth, in The Xtra Factor viewers participate, here via phone calls and video messages to the judges, and celebrity guests offer their opinions on events. And resembling Big Brother Live itself, The Xtra Factor has been known to include clips from within 'The X Factor House', when there was one, although these are often comedy pieces and the rules are not such that this footage is what the contestants are judged on. Also, like Big Brother, which included interviews with evicted contestants but in a special edition on the main channel, The Xtra Factor sees the losing act of the week, as well as the winner of the overall competition at the end, in conversation with the presenter.
The success of The X Factor can be detected by its huge ratings figures as well as the television awards it has won, and, although recent figures show it behind Strictly Come Dancing, it has easily beaten the world's longest running science fiction programme, the BBC's Doctor Who, in viewing figures by a few million when the two have occupied the same time-slot. Furthermore, the importance of this 'type' of programme can be seen through the way Simon Cowell very quickly devised Britain's Got Talent which followed a similar format of auditions followed by live shows. Again, at the start, Cowell acted as one of the Judges, although this time the acts were not limited to singers. Additionally, Jon de Mol and Roel van Welsen created the Dutch programme The Voice in Holland to rival The X Factor and in 2012 the BBC launched its own version of the programme. The Voice similarly begins with auditions and knock-out rounds but with its own set of rules which distinguishes it from the copyrighted format of The X Factor. Other types of game competitions have followed such as BBC's The Great British Bake Off (2010-). Finally, it is important to note that such has been the success of The X Factor that there have been overseas versions. An Australian version of The X Factor, with tweaks to the format, aired in 2005 and returned on a annual basis from 2010, and a US version was launched in 2011 and lasted for three seasons. This version saw Simon Cowell participate as one of the Judges, as well as a brief appearance by Cheryl Cole judging the very first auditions. In February 2014 the US version was axed following Cowell's decision to return to the UK show. Such overseas versions are not uncommon; a pilot for Britain's Got Talent was made in the UK in 2005 but it was only after the success of America's Got Talent (2006-) that it came to ITV as a regular series (2007-). The Apprentice also launched in the US before it was picked up in the UK (2005-), beginning with auditions and leading up to a final like The X Factor. What we can conclude from this overall discussion is that The X Factor, which has now been running for over a decade, is a useful product for the commercial broadcaster ITV. The typical viewer will not stop to consider the points made in this article while watching but all the elements combined will act on them.
Article: Andrew O'Day 2014
Reference Sources: S/Z by Roland Barthes, Big Brother: Reality TV in the Twenty-First Century by Jonathan Bignell, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, 'Scheduling: the last creative act in television?' by John Ellis, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century by Matt Hills, Quality Popular Television by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons, 'Genre, Format and "Live" Television' by Graeme Turner in The Television Genre Book edited by Glen Creeber, Television, Technology and Cultural Form by Raymond Williams.