Will tonight mark end of X Factor?

Viewers have deserted in droves since Simon Cowell stopped judging two years ago

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Critics were queueing up to pronounce The X Factor terminally ill last night, as its final sees male singers with varying degrees of street cred vying for a somewhat tarnished winner's crown.

Simon Cowell, driving force behind the show, was under mounting pressure to step in, with ratings and ad revenues down significantly on previous series. Once the dominant presence in living rooms across the country every weekend, the show is now beaten regularly in the ratings by BBC1's rival show Strictly Come Dancing, which attracts up to 2 million more viewers.

A series of lacklustre winners in previous years, along with the departure of Cowell from the judging panel, has led to a long-term decline in the once unstoppable programme's fortunes. Viewing figures last weekend were 40 per cent below the equivalent semi-final show two years ago, the last year Cowell was a judge.

TV bosses will be even more anxious tonight when hopefuls James Arthur and Jahmene Douglas go head to head in the finale of the ITV talent contest tonight (Sun) after former cruise ship singer Christopher Maloney was voted off last night - amid concern that the audience for the last show will fail to match last year's two-hour final, watched by more than 17 million. The latest show's failure to produce any significant increase in audience figures as the series approaches its climax is causing concern for ITV bosses who have regarded The X Factor as one of their most valuable cash cows.

Steve Hewlett, the former director of programmes at Carlton Television and now a media commentator, said yesterday: "This is not the beginning of the end for The X-Factor, it's gone way past that. The format has run its course, and they cannot arrest its decline. It will not collapse and die, but it's never going to be what it was. It hit its heights in the last season that Simon Cowell did. Cowell was the show's 'X factor' and they never found a way to replace him. ITV need to find a plan B, and fast."

Charlie Rudd, managing director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, added: "It's still got massive appeal. But it feels like it's a format that needs a refresh."

An ITV spokeswoman said: "The X Factor remains one of the highest rating entertainment shows on British TV. Demand from advertisers is high because it continues to attract an incredibly important audience in very big numbers."

The sob factor

Christopher Maloney

Former cruise singer Maloney was thrown a lifeline by the public after he was initially rejected for the finals, but has since sailed through to the final of the show. Voted through as the wild-card contestant, the 34-year-old Liverpudlian has had a rough reception, receiving brickbats from the judging panel for being too cheesy pretty much every week. He has received death threats on Twitter and has been lampooned with a spoof album. Yet his tearful but close relationship with his "Nan" has been the saving of him, guaranteeing him consistently high numbers from a "grey army of voters".

James Arthur

The heavily tattooed 24-year-old from Saltburn, near Middlesbrough, has the looks and the back story that can be a winning combination. Coming from a broken home, he was depressed and living in a bedsit before auditioning for the X Factor with a rendition of Tulisa's "Young". The singer/rapper says that music was a "coping mechanism" when he "went off the rails" after his parents divorced. His mentor, judge Nicole Scherzinger, describes him as "a modern-day poet." But the pressure can get to him, with the singer suffering a panic attack after one of his first live performances.

Jahmene Douglas

Former choirboy Jahmene Douglas, 22, has the ultimate sob factor. His father was a violent abuser and he has come through suicidal depression; his brother was not able to and killed himself. The clean-cut singer struggled early in the competition with a crippling lack of confidence, saying: "I'm a stay-at-home kinda guy, I don't mingle very well". He has produced astounding vocal performances and almost tore the nation's heartstrings with a performance of Whitney Houston's "I look To You" dedicated to his late brother.