X Factor: is it the final curtain?
Simon Cowell's pop-star reality show reaches its series climax this weekend but with rapidly dwindling ratings, Ed Power reckons the end is nigh
Simon Cowell missed the first of this year's X Factor live episodes after tumbling down the grand staircase of his London mansion. The dark lord of high trousers has since returned to the franchise that made his name.
But it seems viewers have already taken his lead and are abandoning the show at a ferocious clip, with ratings for last Saturday's episode slumping to a record low of 4.3 million - half the figure Strictly Come Dancing pulled in over on BBC One.
The 2017 grand final of the talent contest had been bumped forward to December 2 in order to raise its profile. The plan is proving spectacularly ill-conceived with the triptych of Rak-Su, Grace Davies and Kevin Davy White failing to capture the public imagination. Behold the light entertainment equivalent of a tree falling in an empty forest.
Even Cowell appears to acknowledge that, if the jig is not yet up, the band has stopped playing. After viewership declined precipitously in 2016, he instituted a radical new "no novelty act" policy. That was seen as a response to the crash-and-burn reception shown to naff rapper Honey G. "When you're making the show, you can sometimes think too much about being a television producer," was how Cowell defended the decision.
"You try and tick every box and then it becomes a bit formulaic. So you end up with a novelty act in the final and therefore, by putting a novelty act through, somebody else didn't get a chance, and I didn't feel comfortable with that."
Instead of repairing X Factor's reputation, though, the absence of a Jedward or Honey G merely further diminished the appeal. Even before the final, there are rumours the artist formerly known as Cheryl Cole might return next year as a judge in an effort to boost viewership. Cowell has already brought back Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne in the hope of winning back fans.
How different things were in 2010, the year One Direction finished behind Matt Cardle. With viewership north of 10 million, X Factor was part of the national conversation - in Ireland almost as much as in the UK. But it's been years since X Factor gave us a superstar and even hardcore fans would be pressed to name recent winners. One theory is that the public appetite for reality TV has dwindled and that, 13 years and 44 number one singles on, X Factor has simply run its course.
Yet it's difficult to square this outlook with the roaring popularity not only of Strictly but also of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here and Britain's Got Talent, which RTE is about to adapt for audiences here. What distinguishes X Factor from these rival shows is obviously that it is about pop music.
A case can be made that pop simply does not exert the grip on the public - young people especially - that it once did. Kids are nowadays more interested in Instagram and Snapchat than following the exploits of their favourite chart star.
Moreover, there's the argument that Cowell's ding-dong "that's the worse thing I've ever heard" routine doesn't chime well with these gentler times. When he unveiled his Nasty Simon persona in the early 2000s, it was red meat to a more cynical generation. But in this touchy-feely era, the hard-swinging style feels jarring and poorly judged. If we wanted gratuitous abuse, we'd go on Twitter or the comments section of a news website.
Jedward, whom Simon notoriously tried to chuck off the show only to be frustrated by viewers who voted for them in their thousands, think the series needs to go back to its blockbusting origins. "They need to have artists like Taylor Swift on," the twins told a UK tabloid. "It looks like Eurovision."
Others recommend more drastic steps, such as putting the show into hiatus for a year. "Everyone would be saying where's X Factor?" said 2016 winner Matt Terry. "It could do it the world of good."
It seems unlikely Cowell would agree to such a radical measure. Another possibility is that he's already contemplating life after X Factor. "Watch this space," he said in early November. "We've got a new show soon... you'll like the one we're making."
One theory is that he's plotting a Strictly-style dance-floor romp. But, honestly, given the breadth of talent contests already on air, it could be anything.
What's certain is that X Factor is no longer the limit of his horizons and, regardless of how many tune in to tomorrow night's final, Cowell understands the end is coming, and sooner rather than later.