So, Simon Cowell has finally admitted what we’d all suspected – 2011 was a tough year for him. X Factor UK got beaten by Strictly Come Dancing in the weekly Saturday-night showdown; Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) winner Jai McDowell sank without trace, while new judges David Hasselhoff and Michael McIntyre were themselves judged to have flopped; and his new UK game show, Red or Black, was dogged by controversy over an ex-con winner. Adding to the pain, Cowell’s new baby, X Factor USA failed to hit the hoped-for goal of 20 million viewers in its battle against the established American Idol.
Cowell attributes this rotten run to simple complacency: “We went into 2011 thinking: ‘It’s all going to be easy’, and of course, it wasn’t,’ he said. “It was a massive wake-up call.” But one could argue that this is no mere blip, and could be the beginning of the end of Cowell’s empire. Syco has taken steps to manage the slump, with Cowell riding back into town as the man to save BGT – proving that arrogance is his proscribed cure for complacency – and has brought in heavy hitters David Walliams and Alesha Dixon, the latter poached from Strictly in a fairly cynical move to steal some of that show’s thunder.
Red or Black, however, has only been re-commissioned on the understanding that changes will be made to the format – tricky, when the format involves no actual skill other than the ability to call heads or tails correctly. Stringent screening of contestants will avoid last year’s woes – in which £1m prize winner Nathan Hageman was revealed by the press to have served two-and-a-half years in prison for domestic assault – but the future of the format still looks fairly bleak: many pundits argued that that the controversy in fact gave much-needed publicity to an uninspired show, and yet viewing figures were still hugely disappointing. Towards the end of its run, it was even beaten by Watchdog. It is difficult to see how any amount of managerial input can revive what was essentially a flawed enterprise.
The main worry for Syco and, indeed ITV, is what will happen in the crucial autumn period. Logistics dictate that Cowell can’t split himself between the UK and US versions of X Factor, and yet the pull towards the States remains: money and power are greater there. But he may also have to face the fact that the judges were not to blame for last year’s slip – after all, N-Dubz’s Tulisa gave a passable Cheryl impression, Kelly Rowland was fairly entertaining, and Barlow is now a national treasure. One thing that he may not have considered, though, is that Britain may simply be running low on the kind of talent he likes to push. The standard of 2011′s entrants was noticeably lower, with many previously rejected entrants being brought back. Winning act Little Mix have potential, but not the obvious star power of a Leona Lewis.
However, the show has survived the quick descent into obscurity of the likes of Leon Jackson and Joe McElderry – famously denied his meticulously planned Christmas Number One by a downloading coup d’etat that swept Rage Against The Machine to power instead – so perhaps the public are more gripped by the soap opera aspect of the show, rather than the actual talent. This notion is given ample credence by coverage of Frankie Cocozza’s antics in the last series.
Still, the fact that Frankie couldn’t sing wasn’t lost on the viewers, and a similar talent vacuum is opening up in the States – particularly as the available pool of stagestruck karaoke fiends is split between X Factor and the still-running Idol. The credibility of X Factor as a platform to achieve your dreams is also deeply affected when poor management and direction of the winners leaves them floundering in the industry by the time the next series is barely halfway through.
Both X Factor and BGT do have shelf lives: New Faces ran for nine series, while Opportunity Knocks once ran for 14 years. X Factor UK reaches its ninth stretch in the autumn, while Britain’s Got Talent – essentially a more expansive version of the same thing – is on series six… that’s a total of 15 series between the shows. Maybe it’s simply a question of the viewing public wanting something new.
Recent buzz suggests that Cowell is aware of the need to refresh his brands, with reports of a new show – produced in association with Will Smith’s Overbrook Productions, to find the world’s greatest DJs – being announced this week. However, it is expected to operate in a similar, stage-managed fashion to the X Factor, while the traditional world of DJ competitions is niche and highly technical in ways unlikely to appeal to the general public.
Time will tell whether this will be a success – or if it will have viewers hunting for a permanent Cowell off-switch on their remote controls.