Joan Smith: We're all under one roof in the church of Cowell

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I can't wait for the result of Strictly X Factor tonight. Since that lovely couple, Jedward I think they were called, were voted off last month, I've been rooting for that good-looking actor from Hollyoaks. Sorry, I do know perfectly well that Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor are different programmes. I've watched Strictly a few times, I love the dresses and the choreography, but the bland wannabes of The X Factor do nothing for me.

Obviously, not liking the show puts me in something of a minority. Millions of people cared passionately last night that Olly Murs, Stacey Solomon or Joe McElderry sang well enough to be declared victorious tonight and not having an opinion excludes me from many conversations. How many of these discussions are umprompted by the massive media coverage, is another matter. But it is undeniabe that The X Factor contestants become (for a time, at least) household names.

Last week, the record producer Pete Waterman described the show as an "interminable farrago of karaoke wailing and crooning", which seems fair enough to me, and suggested that "we'll barely hear a peep out of this year's winner again" once the series is finished. It doesn't matter because there'll be another series, assuming that Simon Cowell gets the deal he wants from ITV; his production company Syco gets £1.7m for each studio show but is said to be demanding around £2m per programme next year.

Cowell is in a strong position to get what he wants because The X Factor is much more than a talent contest. It's one of a handful of TV shows that bring people together and create a warm sense (no matter how transient) of community. The soaps don't quite do it because there are too many of them and each has its own fan base, whereas The X Factor draws on nostalgia for a time when there were only three terrestrial channels and no satellite TV at all. In those days, strangers who got talking on a bus or in the doctor's waiting room could be confident they'd watched the same shows the previous evening. As TV channels proliferated, that commonality was lost and the gap it has left is part of a larger yearning for connection.

I'm not a fan of all that "broken society" rhetoric the Tories are so fond of, and what I'm talking about isn't a phenomenon that affects only the poor on run-down council estates. Paradoxically, some of the things that make us feel less connected are a consequence of technology that was supposed to improve communication, including television, computers and mobile phones. Emails and texts are incredibly useful, but they have replaced letters, which require time and effort, and even face-to-face conversations. Weirdly, millions of people would rather spend time with virtual friends on Facebook than go to the trouble of arranging to meet real ones. Add the decline of traditional organisations where people got to know each other – trade unions, political parties and churches – and it's easy to see why even affluent people might have a sense that something is missing.

The huge demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003 was high-spirited because the marchers felt united by a common purpose. Such events are rare in modern life so it's left to shows like The X Factor to create an opportunity to bond, and they have the additional attraction of confirming cherished (if erroneous) beliefs about talent, effort and the unimportance of class. That's why millions are on the edge of their seats waiting to hear tonight's result. Simon Cowell's phenomenal cultural dominance is based on the fact that he's the pub, post office and church rolled into one.

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