Triumph of the Nice Factor: A shift in reality TV

We used to thrill to Sharon Osborne's sneers. Now we love a show that promises neither fame nor fortune, and everyone's kind

Steve Brookstein's future looked pretty bright in 2005. He had just won the first series of The X Factor thanks to the votes of 5.5 million people. He had a No 1 album, and a No 1 single, and a record deal with Simon Cowell. Shortly before going on the show, he had supported Dionne Warwick; to fulfil his commitments to ITV, he had to cancel a gig at Wembley with Lionel Richie. But it seemed like the gamble had paid off.

The best part of a decade later, the picture is less cheerful. Despite the success of that first album, his record label dropped him without recording a second; when he did finally release a new collection of songs through an independent outfit, it peaked at No 165. Those 5.5 million people forgot all about him. He found himself singing on ferries, and in coffee shops, and in 2011, when defending himself in court over charges that he had failed to provide information to police over a car crash, he told a magistrate that he was earning between £10,000 and £15,000 a year. Today, he's trying to crowdsource funding for a new album. If you contribute £35, Steve will send you a personalised tweet.

What this has meant for his state of mind is his own business. A life spent in the orbit of Simon Cowell is certainly no guarantee of happiness. But, in a funny way, Brookstein has found at least a version of the fame he set out looking for: as the best-known example of The X Factor's tendency to chew people up and spit them out. There are many lesser-known cases among those who have won the show or reached its final stages; then, far more troubling, there are those fragile souls dispensed with earlier in the process. Their 15 seconds of fame consist of public humiliation as a prime-time audience watches Sharon Osborne's deep-frozen features twist slowly into a sneer at the absurd idea that they could actually sing.

For Brookstein and his cohorts, the problem is not so much the life they were left with, but the promises they were made. The cruelty of The X Factor – and it is indisputably, knowingly, viciously, repeatedly, and successfully cruel – is that it offers so much: all the drama comes from its participants' knowledge that at any moment that golden future could be snatched away. There is nothing inadequate or hopeless about an ordinary life. But when something glitzier is dangled just out of your reach, that can perhaps be difficult to remember.

The Great British Bake Off is dramatic, too. But the stakes are not the same. Instead of balancing the heroism of stardom against the shameful failure of obscurity, its contestants vie to be star baker, and risk being not-star baker. There isn't even a prize. Everyone is nice to each other. Famously, whenever a contestant is having a meltdown, presenters Mel and Sue start swearing like troopers so the footage can't be used.

There was a bit of a row this series, when eventual winner Frances Quinn complained that the producers had edited footage to give a misleading impression of the contestants. This was a bit of a storm in a teacup, but that it was any sort of storm at all was in itself endearing: can you imagine an X Factor contestant complaining about mis- representation? On that show, misrepresentation is the name of the game. To feel upset about it would be like going on The Weakest Link and feeling cross that Anne Robinson giving you a hard time.

I am not, I confess, a Bake Off devotee. I like it, but when it came up against the Arsenal-Borussia Dortmund match, my loyalties were with the football. I was firmly in the minority. To the obvious satisfaction of its Twitter boosters, the baking final beat the football by a huge margin: a peak of 9.1 million against just over four. BBC2 shows don't often enjoy that sort of superiority to ITV.

Was this, perhaps, the result of waning public enthusiasm for the beautiful game? It doesn't look like it. If the head-to-head victory over Adrian Chiles and his band of grumpy pundits brought satisfaction, the comparison with the previous weekend's X Factor feels like something bigger; feels, even, like the intimation of a cultural shift. Saturday night's rating behemoth was a full 800,000 viewers behind.

The X Factor has been on our screens for nearly a decade; as juggernauts go, it is a creaky one. Every show enters a decline in the end (look at the audience drop of nearly 16 million since the start of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and there is no reason to suppose this one will be off our screens for a while yet. All the same, it is striking that the latest reality smash veers so far from the established narrative of triumph and despair.

Nor is it alone: our appetite for kindness, if you think television reveals anything at all about us, only seems to grow. There's Educating Yorkshire, which found tales of the most touching humanity in the theoretically feral environment of a comprehensive school and was one of Channel 4's biggest hits of the year; there's Gogglebox, also on C4, a show that takes the deeply unpromising pitch of filming people watching TV and made it a delight by simply ensuring that the participants were funny, and sweet to each other. And if these seem like fringe concepts beloved of the Twitter cognoscenti, consider this: BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore is swiping the next series of Bake Off for the corporation's flagship. In doing so, she had to promise jealous fans it would be as "cherished" as ever.

I don't suppose any of this is because we are nicer people these days. Our drama shows, after all, are grislier than ever, with an ever higher proportion of detective series seeming to circle around killers with a particular taste for female blood. But while our fictional appetite for cruelty remains strong, I do wonder, in these difficult times, if we need reminding a little more often of our species' real-world capacity for goodness. The bakers don't seem to want fame, fortune, or even, particularly, victory. They will never be cast aside like poor old Steve Brookstein. All they want is to bake something beautiful, and in return for someone to tell them it was good.

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