The X Factor – part of a rich TV tradition
Talent shows were popular in the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s, and shows such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces launched the careers of many a singer, comedian and conjuror as TV personalities. Les Dawson, Victoria Wood, Lenny Henry, Bonnie Langford, Freddie Starr and Paul Daniels are among the acts who used these shows as a springboard. Winners were chosen either by a studio panel or postal votes – phone voting was technologically inefficient until the digital age.
Around the turn on the millennium, Popstars and Pop Idol took the format a little further, launching the careers of Will Young, Hear’Say, Gareth Gates, Liberty X, The Cheeky Girls and the most successful, Girls Aloud. With a little help from Big Brother and The Eurovision Song Contest, the public became used to telephone voting; huge numbers could cast their votes and the results could be confirmed the same night. The scene was set for Simon Cowell’s project – The X Factor.
What differentiates these later shows from the early talent shows is that the acts in the original programmes were usually established performers but on a small scale, working in cabaret and clubs up and down the country. Although there are obvious exceptions, the new breed often have no experience of performing live and go through an arduous audition process along with tens of thousands of other hopefuls. In both cases, TV exposure was a priceless opportunity for the acts, as it was unlikely that they would be talent spotted any other way.
The X Factor format
The X Factor is a purely musical show – there are no comedians, poets, dancers or jugglers here. The format of The X Factor is similar to those of Popstars and Pop Idol, in that the series starts with huge auditions at various venues around the country, where the performers have to sing a song in front of the panel, usually without instrumental accompaniment, to gauge the quality of the voice. The decision as to whether they advance is down to the panel, not the public. Also, groups are allowed to enter as an existing ensemble, unlike Popstars, which auditioned individuals and assembled the groups from the cream of the performers. Acts enter one of four categories – groups, solo singers aged 14–24 (male and female) and solo singers 25 and over. Those successful in auditions go on to “Boot Camp” and the survivors here have personal tuition and guidance at their category judge’s home. Numbers are then whittled down to the live finals, which take place over several Saturdays in a televised theatre situation, with the winner finally being declared when all competition has been eliminated through public voting. The prize is a million-pound recording contract.
More than a talent contest
Although the show is nominally a talent show, the cameras are privy to much of the contestants’ personal life, their family and most points during the auditioning, training and, of course, the live performances. They will also have to take part in public relations appearances and stunts, all of which builds up a picture of the personality, and being likeable is as important as having talent and stage presence.
Many a loser of these contests has gone on to greater things, and many a winner has fallen by the wayside. For contestants of talent shows new and old, the most important thing is the exposure. And with plans afoot for a Europe-wide X Factor, a handful of acts could well receive an unbelievable amount of publicity.