TV ratings war: Dancing all over Simon Cowell
As 'Strictly Come Dancing' trumps 'X Factor' in the ratings, Bruce Forsyth has been gloating over the decline of Simon Cowell's show, says Joe O'Shea
With ten million viewers still tuning in every week and the grand final to come, The X Factor is hardy a prime-time TV show in crisis. Not quite yet, anyway. But Simon Cowell's ratings juggernaut, the "show that saved ITV", is now, for the first time in years, being beaten by BBC rival Strictly Come Dancing in the all-important Saturday night slot.
Strictly did lose almost a million viewers last Saturday night (the producers are blaming the exit of Russell Grant) yet still kept its nose ahead of The X Factor, with an average of 10.6 to ITV's 10 million viewers.
The X Factor's Sunday night results show remains a bigger draw for viewers, with 12 million against Strictly's 10.7 million (ratings for X Factor in Ireland may suffer with the departure of Janet Devlin). But Cowell, his ITV partners -- they can hardly be called bosses when the show's creator still calls the shots -- and even the X Factor judges are now feeling the heat from Bruce Forsyth and co.
Gary Barlow, who has had mixed reviews as the replacement for Cowell this season, this week admitted that the pressure is on. "There is no question that every week when I am waiting for the text with the ratings, I'm s***ting myself," said Barlow, with an unfortunate if graphic turn of phrase.
Bruce Forsyth, the 83-year-old Strictly host, has felt emboldened enough to stick the patent-leather boot in, claiming ITV's rival show was failing because its "scripted rows" were turning off viewers.
"Strictly has other things to offer, not just singer after singer and judges making up rows between themselves . . . scripted, I think."
The critics and the public have been divided on the reasons why The X Factor is rapidly losing its appeal. But Forsyth, with his unrivalled experience in prime-time TV going back to the 1950s, may be on the money when he points out that The X Factor, like the many TV talent shows that came before it, is simply running out of steam.
"There is a length of time that sort of show can last," he said.
The BBC is about to open up a second front in the ratings war. The corporation's American import The Voice, billed as a "kinder, more talent-focused" version of The X Factor, will be launched in the Spring. Hosts Holly Willoughby and Reggie Yates will be joined by Will Young, Tom Jones, Jessie J and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am.
The Voice could be the show that finally kills off The X Factor after eight, all-conquering seasons.
This year's Strictly Come Dancing is already inflicting some serious body blows to Cowell's creation, which has struggled with a new and unconvincing line-up of judges. And head-to-head -- Strictly appears to be winning in all categories:
The X Factor relies on bombast and thunder to grab the attention of viewers, opening with the urgent title sequence before giving us the ominous Carmina Burana as the judges are introduced and prepare to do battle. Everything is done on an epic scale which leaves this year's lacklustre line-up of talent looking decidedly pale by comparison.
Strictly's bouncy, latin-infused theme-tune promises more fun, more glitter and more camp entertainment for all of the family. The BBC's show doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as The X Factor, which, judging by the thunder of 'O Fortuna', is promising us not so much a karaoke session as the Second Coming of Christ.
X Factor: 7/10
Strictly Come Dancing: 8/10
The two main hosts could hardly be more different. Dermot O'Leary comes across as a boyband veteran, all carefully toned limbs and tight trousers, while Bruce Forsyth is your twinkly-eyed, nattily-turned-out granddad.
O'Leary has tried to inject some more personality into his job, coming up with a slightly off-putting hop-skip-and-jump dance as he makes his entrance. But Brucie has the steely-eyed skills of a veteran. You get the impression that Len could spontaneously combust and Brucie would still respond with a big grin and a cheesy quip.
X Factor: 6/10
The new X Factor line up -- Gary Barlow, Tulisa Contostavlos, Kelly Rowland, Louis Walsh -- has failed to generate the kind of clashes that made The X Factor such a hit in the past.
Barlow may look great, but his wooden delivery of poorly scripted lines has drawn much criticism. Kelly does bring a bit of American-style positivity and emotion but it is Tulisa, who was a wild-card selection, who has done best. Louis seems to be missing his old sparring partners.
Strictly's judges keep it simple and stick rigidly to their roles, delivering the camp, OTT catty-ness and wide-eyed enthusiasm that keeps the show zipping along.
X Factor: 6/10
When Janet Devlin shockingly forgot the words to Hanson's 'MMMBop' (hardly a song of Dylan-esque lyrical complexity) last Saturday night, you could picture the cardiac ambulance rushing to Simon Cowell's pad in LA.
It was the 'OMG!' moment that summed up the problem for The X Factor this year -- the talent is not great, the young performers frequently appear out of their depth and standards are slipping (would any performer have dared to forget their lines with Cowell on the panel?)
On Strictly, it's often the worst dancers who are the most fun. Ann Widdecombe and Russell Grant all danced like baby elephants but were still loved by the public. Strictly has an unfair advantage here. It can play a total lack of talent for laughs.
X Factor: 4/10
The X Factor depends entirely on tension and heartbreak. It is pure emotional manipulation. When it works, it works brilliantly. But when it is slightly off, it strikes a jarring note with viewers.
Strictly is made of lighter stuff entirely. Bruce (above) et al have fun, relying on the camp and catty comments of OTT judges Bruno, Len and Craig (to be fair, Alesha is only there to stop Dads demanding that the football goes on).
X Factor: 6/10
Strictly doesn't do controversy but there were some mutterings about "vulgar" dance routines this year.
The X Factor had failed to make an impact on front pages until Frankie Cocozza was asked to leave amid allegations that he had "glamorised" drink and drug use. Cocozza's exit, and questions of whether it was fair on an 18-year-old who lacked the skills needed to cope with sudden fame, seemed to sum up the problems facing the show.
X Factor: 7/10
The Ad Breaks
BBC's Strictly has an unfair advantage here. But even the most die-hard X Factor fans have been complaining about the number and length of ad breaks this season. ITV bosses are determined to wring every last penny out of their cash-cow (the advertising revenue from last year's final alone was said to be worth €23.4m).
The line between making money and frustrating fans has been crossed and it is symptomatic of the slipping standards since Simon Cowell took his eye off the ball.
X Factor: 3/10
And the final decision
X Factor: 39/70
Strictly Come Dancing: 43/70
It is too early to start writing The X Factor's obituary, especially when versions of the show are still drawing audiences all over the world. ITV will almost certainly commission another series. But while Strictly will likely samba on, would anybody bet on there being an X Factor 2013?