Why bad news is always good news for the x factor

As Britain's biggest TV show reaches its climax, PR consultant Mark Borkowski reveals the real story behind the headlines
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The Independent Online

Part of the genius of X Factor is the way it has become the karaoke show of the modern Colosseum and, love it or loathe it, a guilty pleasure for a huge cross-section of the population, bringing together family and friends in a way few other programmes can.

This year the show's bosses have capitalised on the experience of the preceding series, turning negative headlines to their advantage and, ultimately, boosting viewing figures.

X Factor exploits the values of "event TV" by creating a constant flow of narratives trickled out daily to key newspapers, magazines and other outlets as captivating stories designed to draw the fans together.

And, crucially, bosses have risked quite a lot by embracing stories that could, handled badly, alienate viewers – especially those willing to pay premium rates to vote on the show.

Controversy has followed this year's series more than ever before, particularly via "Gamugate", in which a contestant from Zimbabwe was not only kicked off the show, but almost kicked out of the country after it was found that her mother's visa had expired. The producers have always managed the story and that takes a lot of skill and manpower, with teams of people running the publicity machine behind the scenes. It's a kind of freak show meets three-ringed circus meets American wrestling match, in which heroes and villains are paraded each week.

This year there have been some very strong characters and the producers have managed to elongate their storylines. They appear on our screens for three hours a week but their lives – and the lives of the judges – are played through the red-top headlines.

The producers have used the negative storylines as effectively as the positive ones but what's important – and impressive – is the way they have enough confidence in the content to take big risks. They allow the stories to develop, in a negative sense around the most controversial contestants – this year Wagner, Gamu Nhengu and Katy Waissel. What they realise above all else – as all great showmen should – is that all publicity is good publicity.

The approach of the show is part of a wider trend in public relations – to have absolute confidence in your content and understand that, no matter what the controversy, the audiences keep coming back. The X Factor takes this to a high art and its greatest master is Simon Cowell, who, with his team of consultants and managers, has the power every Saturday to end a week of fevered speculation with a single put-down or come-back – and then kick it off in a whole new direction to keep the machine running.

Central to this strategy is the continued support of the media. The red-tops need The X Factor as much as it needs them – and their readers show no signs of losing interest. The crescendo that builds up each week is hugely important for sales and they would suffer without the stream of screaming front pages.

As told to Larry Ryan

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