When Was The X-Factor’s Imperial Phase?

I got bored with the recent series of the X-Factor, and I was not alone: the ratings this year have crashed by a few million. The post-mortems are beginning: the editor of the Radio Times wasted no time in crediting the Olympics and its awakening of a public desire for real heroes who train and sweat and ACHIEVE and BELIEVE. Stage school is no picnic, honey, you might reply – but the claim debunks itself anyway. The ratings crash this year is no one-off – it’s now a trend, after an even more dramatic tumble in 2011, a year with no whiff of gold.

What struck me more, as I clicked back through the ratings of previous series’, is how slow the X-Factor’s build to prominence was. It seems to have always been there and always been huge – in reality, it was certainly a big deal but its days of sheer culture-stomping domination took a while to come. Leona made a splash, but after Leona came Leon Jackson. The climb was slow, and even now we’re still only just back in pre-Leona territory.

Of course, that’s the easy mistake to make with the X-Factor – judging it on its winners. They were never the point – golden geese One Direction finished third, after all. The X-Factor was – let’s tempt fate and use the past tense – it was about so much more: the judges, the subplots, the cheating, the outrage about the cheating, the panto saboteurs, and the treacherous stories it told about who ordinary people are – hidden treasures on the one hand, hopelessly deluded on the other.

So when was its Imperial Phase? The ratings are a decent guide. It built, hitting 10 million average viewiers in the Alexandra Burke season, and then in 2009 and 2010 – series 6 and 7 – it surged. It got average ratings of 13 million then 14 million, staggering in the satellite era, uncanny when you consider how fucking long every show was. These were the years of McElderry and Cardle, two of the most hapless winners, which proves the point about not relying on that as a guide.

But they were also the years of Cowell and Cheryl, of Jedward, of One Direction, and of Rage Against The Machine – seen as a crack in the armour back in 2009, but really the final catalyst needed for the show’s most successful year. The Rage campaign added the perfect note of pantomime and flattered the show, painting it as an unstoppable cultural force and helping it become more of a fixture than ever – the programme you love to hate, fronted by the man you love to hate.

Take that man away and things went downhill fast. The departure of Cowell explains the decline as well as anything. (My own take out from the Barlow Years is that someone who likes bad music is worse than someone who dislikes all music equally, but perhaps I’m unfair on both men). What’s more interesting is why the surge happened in the first place?

Some of it was the times. During series 5 the UK economy imploded, meaning that by Autumn 2009 staying in on a Saturday night was the only affordable option for a lot more of the show’s target audience (young people, lower-income families). But also the show had perfected its three-act structure. In Act 1, our heroes fight their way through a gauntlet of humiliation, gradually coming into focus. In Act 2, as the live shows begin, the tables are turned, and the foolish and formerly humiliated – Jedward, Wagner, Rylan, et al – look to upset the judges, who themselves seem fractious (Well before RATM, the show perpetually flirted with its own subversion). It’s all an illusion – the fools depart with honour, and Act 3 sees the judges resolve their feud and the heroes leave the field.

The structure worked superbly, but it had its limits – for one thing Act 3 was the most precarious even as it was the most popular, relying on audience identification and on talent. For another the story got too rigid. And it needed a better ringmaster than it’s ended up with. But this was what drove the X-Factor in its Imperial Phase, and if we don’t see the show again after next year, the structure will surely come back one day.