Brand Health Check: The X Factor

Viewing figures for ITV's popular talent show have slipped from last year's highs.

The X Factor
The X Factor

Does anyone else have a sense of deja vu? Six months ago, Simon Cowell's absence from the Britain's Got Talent judging line-up was being blamed for falling viewer figures.

Here we are again; but is it really the lack of Cowell on The X Factor that has resulted in a drop in viewing figures of more than 2m on last year?

Perhaps it is inevitable that as TV formats lose their novelty factor, some viewers switch off. However, The X Factor is still attracting the biggest audience in its primetime Saturday and Sunday slots this season, with the exception of the final Saturday in October, when the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing pipped it.

Some argue that this year's X Factor finalists don't have the big personalities of Cher or One Direction from last year. Really? Irish warbler Janet is feistier by the week, while self-confessed bully Misha B and the now-departed Frankie Cocozza have been doling out entertainment at opposite ends of the talent spectrum.

However, seemingly fake in-fighting between Kelly Rowland and Tulisa one week, then Louis and nice-boy-turned-Dr Evil Gary Barlow the next, is tedious. So, what is the missing ingredient that will return the ITV show's undisputed star attraction?

We asked former ITV managing director and now vice-chairman of the Advertising Association, Rupert Howell, and Bridget Angear, joint planning director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which works with celebrities such as Jamie Oliver.


Rumours of The X Factor's demise have been greatly exaggerated. While it is true that some shows have dipped below last year's record audience levels, people forget that the first two shows were up year on year and last week's double elimination peaked at 14.2m. That's impressive by anyone's standards.

However, brands don't stay at the top by resting on their laurels; they innovate and strive to constantly improve to stay ahead of the competition.

The X Factor's main competition is, of course, Strictly Come Dancing, which is enjoying a great year. The latter hasn't changed the format or judges this time, and has probably been helped a bit by Brucie's knighthood, but mainly it is doing well because it has a great line-up of talent.

Just as I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here relies on the calibre of the celebrities, so does Strictly, and here is The X Factor's only Achilles heel: it is a bit short of real talent this year.

There is no Leona Lewis in the line-up; it feels more like a Steve or Joe year (remember them?). Combined with the absence of the star quality of Simon Cowell, this is potentially damaging for the brand unless addressed.


- The format is still brilliant and robust, but continue to innovate around the core proposition; perhaps by introducing another new star judge.

- Focus every effort on unearthing genuine talent. Save the 'novelty' acts for Britain's Got Talent; you are looking for a real pop star here. Quality brands need quality ingredients.

- More Robbie Williams please; he and Gary Barlow are a double act to rival Ant and Dec.

- Give Simon Cowell a knighthood.


Love it or hate it, The X Factor has an award-winning formula: find some members of the public with a talent for karaoke; get them to perform in front of celebrity judges and a live studio audience; then let the great British public decide the ultimate winner.

It chucked in some real duffers for laughs, lots and lots of tears and a few cliches such as 'this means everything to me' and the show passed the watercooler test. It became something that got the great British public talking.

The question is, do the declining ratings mean that this formula is broken, or do they signify something less fundamental?

Well, we now have the perfect control experiment.

With this series, all the variables have been the same, except for one: the judges. So my conclusion from this experiment is that the show is not as compelling without judges whose opinion the audience values. It's just not the same without Simon Cowell's scorn and Cheryl Cole's sincerity in equal measure.

I could even hypothesise that the recent departure of contestant Frankie Cocozza is a sign that the current judges do not have a grip on the talent.

So, if I were ITV and planning the next series (don't write it off yet), I'd be demanding that Simon returns, and writing Cheryl a big fat cheque.


- Bring back A-list judges.

- Lose some of the cheese. Do not assume that just because someone can sing, they will be interesting to viewers.

- Make it feel real again. Focus on finding raw, real talent, not on over-the-top, staged performances.