Not even Simon Cowell can compete with Zoella unpacking a Boots carrier bag

To my nieces, ‘X Factor’ must seem like BBC1’s ‘Seaside Special’ did to me in the Seventies

Grace Dent
Monday 22 February 2016 20:33
'Ten million people are subscribed to chipper mini-Stepford wife Zoella’s channel and one of her last hit videos was a scintillating 21-minute-long breakdown of her removing items from a Boots carrier bag'
'Ten million people are subscribed to chipper mini-Stepford wife Zoella’s channel and one of her last hit videos was a scintillating 21-minute-long breakdown of her removing items from a Boots carrier bag'

In a Saturday night equivalent of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, The X Factor is changing its talent line-up. Again. Presenting duo Olly Murs and Caroline Flack have resigned following only one series at the helm. Radio 1 DJ turned X Factor judge Nick “Grimmy” Grimshaw has chosen not to return too. ITV’s bold, effervescent attempt to give this talent show’s ageing format a Botox shot has fizzled into a farty sound. It is unclear to many TV viewers why Cowell and co – now that viewing figures regularly slip into the six million bracket – don’t simply pull the plug. To give some context, six million viewers is hovering around the Countryfile mark, doing a little bit better than obstacle course-based schedule-filler Ninja Warrior.

And although 8.4 million viewers tuned in for the 2015 X Factor series final – where nice-but-dull Louisa Johnson competed against well-meaning racket Reggie ‘N’ Bollie – it is worth noting that this meant it failed to feature in the top 40 most-watched shows of year. It was beaten by episodes of I’m A Celebrity (celebs chundering out half-digested bug corpses and bile), The Great British Bake-Off (people kneeling by ovens peering at meringues) and Call the Midwife (an endless succession of stoic serfs dying during breech births). Something is terminally, irreparably wrong within the state of X Factor.

Whether you believe Murs, Flack and Grimshaw were masters of their own destiny – or were allowed to commit dignified hara-kari before execution – is somewhat irrelevant. More crucially, here were three of British light-entertainment’s most youthful, gossiped-about, paparazzi-attracting famous faces, ushered in to revive its fortune. It should, on paper, have worked. Flack is a Strictly Come Dancing champion. Murs is a former X Factor underdog-turned-pop sweetheart. Oh, mock Murs if you like for his Sinatra-lite warbling, his X Factor runner-up history and his chirpy lad-about-town shtick, but nowadays he is whoppingly famous. Meanwhile, Grimshaw was a Trojan horse whom Cowell hoped to trundle into unchartered hip, youth-viewing enclaves.

Sure, the show had already run for what seems like for ever, been widely accused of destroying British pop and was increasingly watched only by one’s Aunty Pat while she waited for Casualty on BBC1. But scrap that, here was Grimmy with his cheekbones and his Top Man clothing range and his in-crowd clique. Here was the future.

But by December last year viewing figures were still falling. I don’t blame Flack, Grimmy or Murs for this. Britain, I feel, is simply fed up. In a TV landscape where the buzzword is authenticity, we are weary of the repetitive panto. I, for example, cannot watch one more moderately talented amateur singer hijacked during the week into performing a song in a style/tempo they just can’t manage, only to express vast concerns beforehand and be mauled for it by Saturday. Sure, I liked the panto in 2004, 2005 and 2006. And in 2007 through to 2011 it was tolerable, but by 2013 I started to grow listless. The standard of singing had declined to perhaps two or three strong singers per series and then some god-awful people who had a “quirk”. Furthermore, the manufactured spats, romances and catastrophes began to feel hammy.

And now I find myself on a Saturday night away from scheduled TV altogether, watching Netflix. Or watching box sets on Sky. Or I scoot about the iPlayer’s “Most Popular” section catching up on Tuesday’s TV. Last Saturday we watched something on Amazon Prime, then I went to bed listening to Gimlet Media podcasts. The X Factor struggles to compete in this fragmented market. Grimmy, God love him, just wasn’t enough.

Of course, as if Cowell could care less about my quibble. I am not the fresh, nubile Grimmy-and-Rita-Ora-loving audience he hoped to enliven. But I know enough of these young, iPad-wielding things to understand that, in their quest for authenticity and relatability, they will sign up to YouTube vlogging channels in their billions and consume hour upon hour of anodyne bedroom babble. Ten million people are subscribed to chipper mini-Stepford wife Zoella’s channel and one of her last hit videos was a scintillating 21-minute-long breakdown of her removing items from a Boots carrier bag. They call it a “haul”. The hottest thing in youth-broadcasting now is people unpacking their shopping. Or vlogging themselves in real time visiting a shopping mall to attend an Apple genius bar appointment. The sort of rambling anecdote your average vlogger will share to camera and glean three million plays from is the sort of thing my generation wouldn’t even foist upon their own mothers.

But there is a level of truth, likeability and aspiration buzz in these on-the-bed videos that is missing in the relatively old-fashioned ceremony of X Factor, where four judges appear in full evening regalia at the start through a cloud of dry-ice smoke.

I say a “level” of truth with caution. Many of these oh-so-natural vloggers have an army of staff, a business premises and a honed corporate growth plan, and their videos are little more than sponsored content. But they are very much now. Here is entertainment that is constantly updated, easily shareable, free to subscribe to and which comes with gorgeous open comment boxes so the viewer can interact with the star. To my nieces, aged eight, X Factor must seem like BBC1’s Saturday night Seaside Special did to me in the Seventies. Sort of fun, yes, I mean, here was Abba, but mainly grown-up fuddy-duddy fun. We enjoyed what you did, X Factor, but we can’t take you with us to the next round. This is the end of the road.

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