This time last year, The X Factor’s final attempt at rejuvenation was flopping miserably.
The X Factor: The Band – which debuted on this day in 2019 – failed to average more than 3million viewers for any of its episodes and barely anything has been said of its winners (promising girlband Real Like You) in the 12 months since.
It was inevitable, then, that Simon Cowell’s once-almighty franchise would be off-air in 2020 – with or without a brutal pandemic to work around. And this has been our first autumn since 2004 without a chaotic few months of divisive eliminations, blockbuster guest performances and nonsensical platitudes from Louis Walsh.
To be honest, I’m not sure many people have even noticed it’s been gone.
Don’t get me wrong. For all its many (many) flaws, it gives me no pleasure to talk ill of The X Factor. I was a super-fan. I was obsessed.
I remember driving up the household phone bill (sorry dad) to vote for Cassie Compton and Rowetta Satchell in series one; and when Beyonce came out to duet with Alexandra Burke in the series five finale – my 20th birthday, no less – it was truly the greatest gift I could have asked for.
My brother put up a massive World Cup wallchart in 2010 and I was frustrated – nay, appalled – when he scoffed at my suggestion that we do the same for X Factor series six.
And the most exciting moment of any given year was when the post-finale results breakdown, complete with all the live show voting statistics, would be unleashed onto the World Wide Web for us saddos to dissect and discuss at length.
‘I knew Saara Aalto topped the phone vote in week eight!’
Alas, time was not kind to the juggernaut that gave us everyone from Harry Styles to The Conway Sisters. And although reports of the ratings suffering were grossly over-exaggerated for at least a few years, even I – a sucker for a blatantly contrived Deadlock – had tapped out by the end.
I was one of about five people nationwide who put myself through the final ‘civilian’ series in 2018 (Dalton Harris deserved better!), but The X Factor: Celebrity truly tested my patience to its very limits. And although I thought The Band showed promise, I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
So when reports began swirling in early 2020 that the franchise was being put on the backburner altogether, I – like many others – assumed it was simply the end of the road. I was reminded of all the pop groups who use the word ‘hiatus’ when they’re tiptoeing around the phrase ‘vanish into oblivion’.
Dermot O’Leary, however, has now implied that it could indeed be back.
‘It’s got the turning circle of a car ferry,’ he said on Sunday Brunch. ‘There’s a lot of planning that goes into it. It definitely won’t be next year, so it will probably be back in 2022.’
But the obvious question is: do we want it back? Is there an appetite for it? Will a couple of years away enable it to return with all the drama and excitement and Cheryl performances and Peter Dickson voiceovers of its glory days?
Even if the answer to all those questions is ‘yes’, creating a successful popstar in such an intense timeframe is significantly harder now than it was when, say, One Direction and JLS were at their peak.
In the age of streaming, scoring a massive hit single is as hard and rare as getting a girlband past Week Two of the live shows.
Not even Zara Larsson, Louis Tomlinson, Paloma Faith, The Vamps or Steps have bothered the Top 100 with their recent releases; and while most of that lot have at least been able to count on strong album sales, upcoming artists like Rina Sawayama, Dagny and Bree Runway have yet to impact the album chart either – despite years of hard work and rapidly growing fanbases.
With that in mind, what hope would an X Factor finalist have – especially given how impatient record label execs have been with wanting quick-fire hits from them in the past?
Still, maybe it doesn’t matter that the show can’t create big globe-trotting megastars anymore – that certainly hasn’t stopped The Voice from rolling on for 400 years.
In any case, The X Factor has continued to introduce us to exciting talent – if you’re in any doubt, just look up the excellent recent EPs from the likes of Grace Davies and Shan Ako.
But at the end of the day, maybe the public is just too tired of its relentless, scandal-baiting drama. Granted, those controversial, infuriating incidents were what once made it unmissable telly; but they were always broken up by moments of excitement and joy.
By the end, this elation had pretty much petered out, and it all started to feel a bit sloppy and desperate.
That said, I do think that if The X Factor was ever going to stand a chance of being God-tier entertainment again, this year – when we’ve all been stuck at home, desperate for distraction – is ironically when it might have been able to pull it off.
It would have been hard: recent years have proven that producers’ attempts at reinvention and ‘shaking up the format’ rarely end well (remember the ‘jukebox wheel’ of 2016? Never again).
But if it could have recaptured the thrills of its halcyon days, even with Covid-19 restrictions in play, it could have given us the perfect pandemic obsession. Maybe this would even have been the perfect time to revisit the Allstars idea that was allegedly canned last year.
As it is, time will tell if it can ever again be a force to be reckoned with. The modest ratings achieved by Little Mix: The Search have already shown that the public isn’t exactly chomping at the bit for music-related talent shows, even when they’re genuinely really good.
But as a long-time devotee, I’m secretly hoping it finds a way. Deep down, I hope it’ll be Event Television once more in the not-too-distant future.
It just needs to rediscover its… well, its X Factor.