As comedowns go, it was quite low key. But so significant. Simon Cowell, who has never been rattled by worldwide contempt of his trousers, his hair or his manner, has let himself get upset. And he let us know in a terse statement. "A slightly irritated congrats to Danny and the BBC," went the tweet. Of course, television rivalry is the only thing capable of irking Cowell, a man who has forged his career through it. The provocation was that singing contest The Voice, (made by British indy Wall to Wall and Dutch TV company Talpa under the auspices of Danny Cohen, controller of BBC1), is currently trouncing his baby, Britain's Got Talent. And after only three weeks into the competition! The truth is that BGT, even with Mr Nasty himself back as King Judge, is looking old and tired in Saturday night's Shiny Floor Show Fight To the Death. Nearly 10 million of us are watching The Voice, (which, in a senior-friendly casting masterstroke has Sir Tom Jones in the line-up), while BGT, over on ITV could only manage 9.1 million. At its peak last Saturday night, 10.7 million were watching The Voice – and in the crucial 20-minute crossover where the two go out simultaneously, it was ahead by 4 million.
The old adage that it takes a couple of seasons for an entertainment show to win more than 10 million viewers has been comprehensively liquidised and gulped back by Jessie J. You can almost hear the screams of joy issuing from Broadcasting House. Plus, Saturday night entertainment is ITV's thing, and to pour cold water on it from a bucket held by Sir Tom Jones is sweet indeed. Interestingly, the critics seem to be as irritated by The Voice as Cowell. AA Gill sneeringly dubbed it a "silk-cushion option ... an underwhelming event," while cheering on BGT as "bigger than the sum of its contestants". Well, so much for his barometer.
Viewers, it seems, like to see people doing something well. And not something silly, either, like obese men stripping, "finger knitting" or dancing in wheelbarrows. They enjoy people celebrating a skill, which singing well in public is. They don't care that some of the acts have sung in public before. They clearly appreciate the fact that the coaches – all decent singers themselves – give constructive criticism, not sarcasm. They do not want to see children crying on stage. Or adults shouted off. We're having too bad a time generally for misery on a Saturday night. Susan Boyle went through all that; she came out a star – but for every SuBo, there is a lot of BGT cannon fodder now walking around with zero self-belief.
So will Cowell turn to the light and start being a bit nicer? If he's got any nous, he should. Because if audiences have gone lukewarm on the talent-free gladiatorial circus that is BGT, what about his other baby? Who on earth will care about the X Factor when it returns? No wonder ITV was desperate to purchase The Voice, and no wonder the BBC is cockahoop that it did.
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