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Does general apathy mean 'X Factor' is in terminal decline?

IT is finally coming to a shuddering, grinding halt tonight, after what seemed like endless months of pillaging the weekend TV schedules -- yet, unlike previous years, nobody seems overly bothered or excited about the finale of The X Factor. This ennui does not bode well for the future careers of the three finalists, Marcus Collins, Amelia Lily, and Little Mix, whose progress we have been following for the past three months.

Indeed, while the news that Strictly Come Dancing foxtrotted its way past The X Factor in the UK ratings two weeks ago was surprising on one level, as Simon Cowell's annual musical juggernaut is normally the hottest ticket in town, it wasn't that unexpected on another level. As a huge lover of this kind of programme, even I have to admit that The X Factor has lost its sparkle this year, and while it is still a massive draw, the question of whether we are finally falling out of love with reality TV has got to be asked.

Just like Big Brother, which ground to a halt on Channel Four last year, before resurfacing again to very little reaction or fanfare on Channel Five this summer, The X Factor appears to have come down with an acute, possibly fatal, case of terminal boredom.

Or, more precisely, viewers are growing tired of the formulaic scenarios, sob-stories, and manufactured dramas, not to mention the manufactured groups who are put together at the expense of all the other hard-working bands that enter the competition. We're getting tired of being its puppets, and there's something very galling about knowing in March that the winner will take the Christmas number one single spot in December. Before fading to oblivion by February!

There has also been a number of damaging controversies, the latest of which was that Amelia's "winner's single" was available for pre-order on HMV's website last week and the other two competitors' singles weren't, which led to allegations of "fixing". While HMV stated that it was an error, if Amelia wins tonight then the doubt will linger on in people's minds.

Since Simon, Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue left the judging panel, the magic of the judges' chemistry has vanished. Louis's predictable comments and chirpy manner are great fun, as usual, but Gary is a poor replacement for Simon, lacking total credibility as the mean, panto-baddie judge. Tulisa was primed to be the next Cheryl Cole, but, seriously, they have got to be joking. She looks cheap, there is nothing special whatsoever about her, and while Kelly Rowland at least radiates a little bit of star quality and glamour --although she should have avoided singing last week -- Tulisa, unfortunately, is a chav in a Dolce & Gabbana dress.

Even the contestants, apparently "living the dream", seem acutely unhappy. Irish interest Janet Devlin was eliminated two weeks ago, and unlike previous years when we got behind Mary Byrne and Jedward with all of our 'Paddy power', we were ambivalent towards her. She has an amazing voice, undoubtedly, but seemed joyless and drained of all exuberance, which was startling in a 17-year-old girl.

The X Factor is only marginally better than the recently ended I'm a Celebrity ... , which was completely stale and predictable this year -- from the usual cast of Z-list characters involved, to the quite frankly cruel, witchetty grub-eating tasks. Even Ant and Dec's much-loved brand of Geordie humour seemed very formulaic this time around. I can understand why you would stick to a tried-and-tested formula, but this show has gone off as badly as the rotten egg that faced Freddie Starr during his bushtucker trial -- the other delicacies on offer included a camel's toe, mealworms, mice tails, pigs' anuses and turkeys' testicles. (Starr ended up in hospital when he suffered an allergic reaction to the camel's toe -- which brings all sorts of puns to mind, but it's a family newspaper so I'll refrain.)

TV3's The Apprentice is a different matter, and thank God for it. Last week reports circulated that the broadcaster was about to axe the series, citing the poor quality of contestants. TV3 replied that this was not the case, as the show had an average of 400,000 viewers per week. When it comes to entertainment value, The Apprentice wins hands-down over any of the other reality programmes. It manages to deliver a winning weekly dose of entertaining drama, Machiavellian plots, sexual tension and jaw-dropping stupidity -- all in the name of winning a highly paid apprenticeship, or, in this year's case, a lucrative business investment. The fact that the candidates are so disastrous is precisely what makes it such compelling viewing.

The premise of the programme is that a group of shiny, ambitious, business-minded young people are sent to live in a house together, and are set a series of tasks on behalf of Irish companies. One of the candidates on the losing team is eliminated at the end of each show, and while all are experts on talking the talk and bigging themselves and their achievements up, they generally manage to turn each task they are set into a debacle of epic proportions.

There are times when their cluelessness would embarrass a group of transition-year students running school-based mini-companies, as they manage to make an utter hames of the most straightforward tasks -- I still blush for the team that named the CD of emerging music acts Toe-Tapping Talents.

It is utterly compelling viewing, particularly as the candidates blatantly stitch each other up, scheme to make themselves look good at the expense of their rivals, and unashamedly hang each other in the boardroom to avoid being the one fired by Cullen.

Then they all go back to live with one another in the house, where the real miracle is that they manage to avoid stabbing each other in the eye with forks over a nice glass of pinot grigio, or drowning each other in the Jacuzzi. Some of them fall in love or have a little fling, which adds to the drama.

The reality show I can't wait for is TV3's Tallafornia, not least because my friend's daughter, Assets model Kelly Donegan, is in it! It starts tonight after The X Factor finale, and then continues in January, which is sure to brighten up our post-Christmas depression. The trailer for it is jaw-dropping, and I confidently predict that it is going to be a huge ratings winner. We'll apparently be scandalised at the goings-on, and, like The Apprentice, it contains a whole cast of characters that we will recognise in our own uniquely Irish way and cringe as we do so.

People are already talking about it and it hasn't even hit the screens, which is the sign of a sure-fire winner.

And that, folks, is what makes reality TV successful. Just like real life, it needs to engage us, provoke us and most of all, stop boring the pants off us. Simon Cowell, please take note!

Sunday Independent