Wa­ter­cooler TV

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

AS THE nee­dle en­tered my skin and pumped the gear into my body, my GP looked me square in the eye and asked, “Is there any chance you’ll get to meet Jed­ward?”.

Even a swine flu shot is not im­mune from talk of the tri­als, tribu­la­tions and tit­il­la­tion of The X Fac­tor. From the young girl work­ing the Tesco check-out with the home-made “Keep Them In!” Jed­ward badge to “up­dates” and “ex­clu­sives” ev­ery­where from Sky News to Morn­ing Ire­land, The X Fac­tor has be­come a three-month “silly sea­son” to some, but to the not-so-si­lent ma­jor­ity it rep­re­sents the last great “wa­ter cooler” pro­gramme on tele­vi­sion.

Sired by the in­eluctable rise of re­al­ity TV and Pop Idol, The X Fac­tor is a hy­per-real soap “popera”. It works be­cause it ap­pears to bring us “back­stage” and to let us par­tic­i­pate in a process (the mak­ing of a pop­star) that was pre­vi­ously mys­te­ri­ous. This all-im­por­tant “re­al­ity” fac­tor dis­tin­guishes it from pre­vi­ous tal­ent show com­pe­ti­tions such as Op­por­tu­nity Knocks and New Faces.

The TV show has pro­vided a boost to an ail­ing mu­sic in­dus­try. The pat­tern now es­tab­lished is that an X Fac­tor char­ity sin­gle (recorded by all that year’s con­tes­tants and usu­ally a mawk­ish cover ver­sion) goes straight to No 1 in early De­cem­ber and ef­fec­tively keeps the Christ­mas top spot warm for the even­tual win­ner of the show.

With such huge mar­ket pen­e­tra­tion, it is no sur­prise that both the sin­gle and the al­bum re­leased by the X Fac­tor win­ner ar­rive in the charts at No 1. The show has ef­fec­tively killed off the ques­tion of who will be the big­gest seller at Christ­mas.

While the first and sec­ond win­ners of the show (Steve Brook­stein and ShayneWard) ap­pear to have dis­ap­peared from view, the their and fifth win­ners (Leona Lewis and Alexan­dra Burke) have made sus­tain­able ca­reers. Their style ap­peals to the widest pos­si­ble de­mo­graphic, so it’s lit­tle sur­prise that the ma­jor­ity of X Fac­tor mu­sic sales are through the su­per­mar­kets.

The show has changed the mu­sic in­dus­try in that every­one else stands out of the way when the X Fac­tor win­ner re­leases a sin­gle/al­bum (at least their first one). And, by em­pha­sis­ing MOR pro­duc­tion val­ues, the show is also partly re­spon­si­ble for the mu­si­cal con­ser­vatism now vis­i­ble at the top end of both the sin­gles and al­bums charts.

It was never The X Fac­tor’s man­date to slow the un­stop­pable slide of CD sales. This is merely a happy by-prod­uct and helps to keep the pro­gramme’s pro­file in the news un­til the next three-month mu­si­cal crap­shoot starts all over again.

This year’s view­ing fig­ures are up to 15.8 mil­lion – five mil­lion more than watched at any stage last year. The rise is at­trib­uted to the Jed­ward phe­nom­e­non. Lu­can, you have a lot to an­swer for.

With com­men­ta­tors such as Mark Law­son in the Guardian com­par­ing John and Ed­ward to Barack Obama and Mar­garet Thatcher (they’re all “out­siders” ap­par­ently) and ar­gu­ing that the rea­son the duo lasted so long in this year’s com­pe­ti­tion is be­cause “it is a small-screen ver­sion of the re­volt against fi­nan­cial fat-cats in a time of re­ces­sion”, you re­alise that we’re in grave dan­ger of falsely el­e­vat­ing an ex­tremely well-pro­duced light en­ter­tain­ment into a so­cio-po­lit­i­cal totem.

This is not a real-life doc­u­men­tary se­ries; it is a show that uses ev­ery trick in the light en­ter­tain­ment book to jolly the action along. But none of this mat­ters (ex­cept to joy­less pedants). Th­ese are just triv­ial sac­ri­fices to be made at the al­tar of a mas­sively pop­u­lar prime-time tele­vi­sion show.

The man be­hind The X Fac­tor, Si­mon Cow­ell, has a back­ground in A&R and mu­sic pub­lish­ing and once ran an in­die pop la­bel. He also has great “ears”, as they say in the in­dus­try. Al­ly­ing his in-depth mu­si­cal knowl­edge with the rig­or­ous emo­tional dy­nam­ics of re­al­ity TV has al­lowed him to cre­ate a wildly suc­cess­ful fran­chise. A lo­cal ver­sion runs in most coun­tries in Europe.

Next year he plans to un­veil Euro X Fac­tor, which will see each coun­try’s win­ner com­pete in a con­ti­nent-wide “Cham­pion of Cham­pi­ons show”. Which es­sen­tially means bye, bye Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test.

As for John and Ed­ward, they re­ally should sched­ule a meet­ing with Steve Brook­stein (the first win­ner of The X Fac­tor in 2004) and ask him what it’s like to per­form in the Maid­stone branch of Pizza Ex­press, as he did last Au­gust.

Left: Si­mon Cow­ell and one of his “great ears” Be­low: do we re­ally need to cap­tion them?

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