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Tv Talent Shows: X Factor - is the Judging Fair and Realistic?

Updated on October 23, 2012
Popular One Direction on the UK X Factor Stage
Popular One Direction on the UK X Factor Stage | Source

I once wrote another article on the pros and cons of TV talent shows. That article was a lengthy investigation into all the advantages and disadvantages of such competitions. Here, however, I will focus soley on the phenomenal X Factor, from the point of view of the judging.

In the UK, ITV is currently in the midst of the Live Shows - and yes, there is some promising talent. I do, in fact, think that the standard is one of the highest when it comes to decent singing. Ella Henderson, Jahmene Douglas and James Arthur are at the top of my list of the best. But only one act can win - and the question I am asking here is, Does the Judging Criteria on X Factor Really Produce the Most Deserving Winner?

Firstly, we must remember that X Factor is a television show designed to entertain viewers and to make money. Money is produced when large numbers of viewers are compelled to ring in and vote for their favourite act. This has become a popular format for television reality shows. It is, in fact, difficult to think up another method which still includes the public's vote. However, the public vote is often a shock - excellent singers are repeatedly found in the bottom two, whilst those who are questionably less talented seem to sail through into the latter stages. Why? Is it a fix? Is it a scam? Or is it a popularity contest?

Who Votes?

We must remember that, while X Factor might produce good, light-hearted, Saturday night viewing, it is the viewers who vote that decide the outcome. Yes, the judges get to choose between the bottom two acts until the semi-finals, but it is still the public who placed them there. In order, however, for it to be a really true representation, voters would need to come from a broad range of society. Although I do not have the data to back it up, I do not believe voters are equally represented from all age ranges and across all groups of society. I am a viewer in my late thirties who watches every series - yet I never, ever vote. I have my favourites. I have my opinion on which acts I think deserve to go through and which deserve the boot. However, I never show my support with a vote. To put it simply, I just like watching people sing on TV. I listen to music at home. Sometimes I buy CDs. I just don't vote.

Are the Over 28s Doomed?

The over 28s usually don't fare terribly well on X Factor. In the current series, Gary Barlow has already lost two acts out of his four - and he lost these acts in the first two weeks of the show. What's more, both were lost to Deadlock - which means that these acts really did receive the lowest votes. But why?

Well, I have already pointed out that, although I like music and I like watching X Factor, I never, ever vote. I know many people of my own age who watch but don't pick up the phone. Surely, the most frequent voters are much younger people who are so hooked on the show that they care greatly about the outcome. Not people like me who record it using series link and watch it when the kids are in bed. And young people like young acts, at least a lot of the time - boy bands are always hugely popular with teenage girls. The singing is important - but equally so is the image of the band members. When it comes to singing talent, can a cute bunch of adolescents really outsing a vocal powerhouse? This brings my earlier question back - is it a singing contest or a popularity contest?

Last week, forty-four year old Melanie Masson was voted off, despite having an incredible voice. Is that fair, when the singing abilities of some of the remaining acts don't match up? I suppose the real question is, is X Factor a singing competition to find the most talented voice - or is it a contest to find the act who best fits into today's mainstream market? It is true that Melanie liked to sing songs from the 'Woodstock' era - such as Janis Joplin - which probably wouldn't fare too well in today's charts. However, I wonder if the voting would have turned out differently had the voting been equally represented across all age ranges and all socio-economic groups.

lt is true that it is much more difficult to break into the music industry the older a performer becomes. We have ageing stars who will always fill a concert hall, but most of them started out when they were much younger. Much of their fan bases are now the parents of today's youth -the type that sometimes buy records, but are less likely to vote.

Clearly, it is less realistic for an older performer to find a foothold in the music industry unless the path has already been paved. Not impossible (think Susan Boyle), but difficult. Does this, therefore, mean that X Factor portrays the reality of the situation - or should mature acts on such shows be voted for purely on vocal talent?

Novelty Acts and the Underdog

X Factor seems to always incorporate at least one novelty act. Somehow, the programme ensures this happens. This year, it is Rylan. Once it was Jedward. Long ago, it was Chicco. These are the kinds of acts that are less about the singing and more about stage performance, costumes and special effects - albeit often cheesy.

In my opinion, most novelty acts should have never been put through to the live shows in the first place. Usually, they take the place of a more talented vocalist. It is hard to foresee a future for these contestants once the show is over. This then breeds the question - is X Factor a singing contest or is it about good television? It's a question often deliberated by the judges themselves. Whatever the conclusion, X Factor never seems to air without one controversial singer gracing our screens every series.

Novelty acts might get put through, but they don't sail along without harsh comments from certain judges. This year, Gary Barlow does not hold back when it comes to criticism of Rylan. I must admit, I agree with him. Rylan might not be the worst singer in the world, but he is definitely not in the same league as most of the others. I don't even enjoy his stage presence - for me, it's too camp and full of drama. Somebody must, though, because he still remains in the competition - and his popularity has increased.

Has it increased, however, because of his improved ability to entertain, or because Barlow's criticism has earned him new fans? Do voters really think Rylan might be the newest chart topping success - or are they voting for him because they enjoy a bit of a good-hearted laugh on a Saturday night? Worse still, do people vote just to get up Gary Barlow's nose, to keep a novelty act in as long as possible - no matter if they are out of their depth or not? Or do the British public simply like to support those struggling with the harshest comments, giving them a bit of boost.

It's certainly true that voting is not consistent, and the acts who do find themselves in the bottom two often find they are 'rescued' the following week.

Voting Method - What if it was Conducted in the Opposite Manner?

The method of voting used in the X Factor format means that callers vote for the act they liked the most. A caller might have a favourite that they always support, or perhaps they choose the act they believed was the best on the night. Perhaps a caller really liked two acts, or three acts, believing they all deserve to go through to the next show. However, only one act gets their vote, so the others are ignored, even though the performance was good.

Perhaps, if the voting method was different, the result would be as well. If callers chose an act to vote off, rather than their favourite, the competition might have a different outcome. Maybe the winner would still be the same, but the subsequent order would fall differently. Better singers might remain in the contest for longer. This might well produce different opportunities for an act once they leave the show. Those who finish in second or even third place often secure record deals and go on to success - whilst those who go out in the earlier shows are forgotten even before the final.


X Factor is a popular show with a well-rehearsed format. It works for television, but does it always work fairly for the contestants? I think that good singers very often get voted out before they deserve to. If the format was different, the end results might be different as well.

But this show, as its name suggests, is all about finding an act with the real 'x factor'. Artists who really live up to the show's title - performers who captivate the audience and turn a song into unique magic no matter what they sing - would probably make it through to the finals no matter what the format. Those who are just 'good' - maybe even very good - without the real magic could very well find that the voting process doesn't always seem fair or accurate.

Getting through to the live shows on X Factor is a bit of a russian roulette. Singers could be voted out at any time, even when a performance suggests they should be safe. After all, it might lead the winner and even the runners-up to success and fortune, but it is still a game with the outcome at the hands of the voting public. And the voting public sometimes have other agendas - they like a boy band who are cute or a catchy song that they already know. Or they are trying to annoy Gary Barlow, as they annoyed Simon Cowell before him. A large percentage of the voting public can't even detect flat notes unless they are terribly out of tune.

X Factor opens doors for some people, but it is not the music industry. The voting process is designed to make money from the public, whilst entertaining those at home on Saturday nights - and thus it has its flaws. Still, it certainly seems here to stay, attracting more and more auditionees every year. Those who make it through would do well to bear in mind that, whilst talent is commended, the bottom two are often a complete shock due to unexpected voting that doesn't tally with the judge's opinions. As a platform for would-be stars, it is a good opportunity for exposure, but it is definitely not perfect.


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