Simon Cowell - Remotely Interested: The (FI)X Factor

Mark Grainger 03/09/2010

The end of August means many things to many people. On a personal scale it equates a very good friend of mine's birthday, for some parts of the country (in other words, the South) it can mark the beginning of an Indian Summer (often more reliable than the British counterpart, which admittedly isn't really saying much). For rather a lot more people however, August signals that magical time of the year when the whole family can sit on the sofa, turn on the telly and offer up their eyes and wallet contents to the dark masters in exchange for fulfilment and entertainment. “PLEASE SIMON, PLEASE TAKE MY EYES FOR YOUR CIRCUS OF SOBBING MOCKERY!” they cry, weeping as the face of the square-headed master smiles gently back at them, oblivious to the madly spinning pound signs in his eyes.

I am of course talking about the return of ITV's X-Factor, and, okay, I'm exaggerating (not about the eyes though, if you pulled Simon Cowell's left arm down sharply I'm fairly confident that's what would actually happen). It's not like the X-Factor is the first piece of telly to enthral the majority of the population. Before X-Factor there was Pop Idol and Popstars, before Popstars/idol their was Big Brother. And in the beginning there were shows like Sunday Night At The London Palladium and Come Dancing. Both were appointment viewing that had the large majority of housewives (and possibly some slightly ashamed husbands) gathered around the magic box with the kids and Granny. But none made a profit from the outcome of each show, and it was years later that game shows started having a viewer's phone in question to help bolster the broadcaster's coffers. I'm not such a television snob that I'm going to bemoan the lack of quality in today's schedules, or to say that the X-factor should be scrapped because it has no artistic merit, after all its the same scenario with books, films, video games and any other creative medium; popularity is not always a hallmark of quality. And the quality is there if you look past the almost all consuming 'talent' and reality show calendar (Winter: Dancing On Ice, Spring: Britain's Got Talent, Summer: Big Brother, Autumn: X-Factor, Winter: Strictly Come Dancing, I'm A Celebrity...), BBC1's Sherlock and Luther proved that, but the problem is that the reality shows command so much media attention from the red-tops and their home channels news networks (the fact that it's the live final and everyone is trembling with anticipation was not one of Galtung and Ruge's news values as far as I'm recall) that they effectively saturate the TV landscape through coverage elsewhere and the follow up shows that have become such big draws for the likes of ITV 2.

I'm not going to pretend that I've never liked the X-Factor, but I have always taken it with a pinch of salt and a slab of skepticism and I'm entirely sick of it now (and judging by last year's battle for Christmas number one I'm not the only one) and that's mainly because of how fake the whole affair is, which is why it always baffles me when people are surprised when a new scandal hits the show. This is the show which employed Sharon Osbourne ( a woman so fake she probably doesn't even have her own nipples anymore, and if she does they'll be in a box in her dressing table) to throw water and stir animosity within the judges., the show where you can tell if someone is going to be good or bad dependant on the theme music they play behind the pre-audition interview. A show so focused on the bigger picture and the bigger bucks that they changed the format of the auditions just as a way of selling the show to America, claiming that the audition process, which had only been in place for one season, was what made it stand out from the long-running American Idol.

So the question is, why was anyone surprised to find that the X-Factor was auto tuning its most promising contestants? These people have already gone as far as the Judges' houses stage and after all the show has a long history of narrative star-making. Every year it virtually tells you, the faithful audience, who to love and hate through editing. Remember Rhydian Roberts? A man in possession of scary eyes and a belting voice, Rhydian went to the media to complain about how he was being made into a hate figure before the live finals. He was subsequently portrayed as a misunderstood lad who loved his mum throughout the live finals. In a few short weeks he went from being an egotistical, weeping sore of a man to finishing second place. Or how about last year, when it became apparent that Joe McElderry was starting to emerge as something of a dark horse so for the section where the contestants returned home he wasn't shown strolling along the beach or sitting in the park, he was filmed walking down the mangy back alley behind his house, y'know 'cos its grim up north. How the nation sighed a collective "aww" when they saw the shit-tip that Joe had managed to claw his way out from, only to find he could warble acceptably. This in particular is a sore point for me as i live an entire 3 minute walk away from McElderry's house (I still didn't vote for him mind. Matter of principle) and there are plenty of nice areas in South Shields he could have been filmed, especially since none of the other contestants' VT footage had the same 'poorer than Oliver Twist' theme.

The auto tuning scandal (which has apparently ended with Cowell banning the use of the studio tool) is merely the next step in highlighting who you should be voting for to make the producers and the record companies the most money, and if one of the lucky studio-enhanced few does manage to win it won't stop there. There are rumblings that Olly Murs alleged spat with his brother has been reported just in time to give him extra press coverage to coincide with the release of his debut single, whilst it could also be said that Joe McElderry's 'coming out' happened to be at a perfect time, coming as it did when it wouldn't affect his votes and also served to remind people that his album also happens to be coming out soon. If there's one thing Cowell and his producers know how to do its generate PR. Just saying.

You can call me cynical if you want, I'll even agree with you, but after years of the X-Factor's patronising condescension, I find it hard to treat it with anything less than total suspicion.