Louis and Simon are at it again -- so it must be time for 'X Factor'
Kim Bielenberg on the return of the TV talent show that's got it all
To millions of fans its return to TV screens is as sure a sign that summer is drawing to a close as the bundles of back-to-school copy books turning up in shops.
The X Factor makes its annual reappearance on Saturday night to the usual autumnal cacophony of boos and cheers.
Just this week, the singer/songwriter David Gray dubbed it "meaningless tripe''. Bjorn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, claimed it was killing creativity in music.
But these brickbats are unlikely to stop up to 20 million people watching when the upcoming series reaches its climax in the dark days of December.
The musical establishment is predictably sniffy about The X Factor, but in some ways they miss the point of the show. The music and most of the singers are incidental.
The judge Louis Walsh, a key character on the show, put his finger on it when he explained why it garners a huge audience year after year.
"It is part reality (show), part talent show, part soap opera and part Jerry Springer.''
The judges are the most important part of the spectacle with their usually contrived on-screen and off-screen squabbles, which are lovingly chronicled in the tabloids.
Incidents such as the time when Sharon Osbourne threw a glass of water on Louis, or when Louis quit, or the latest harrowing saga involving the "national treasure'' Cheryl Cole -- whose contraction of malaria was surely not contrived -- all help to hype up the programme.
Viewers have long since given up hope that the show will unearth the next Elvis or Beatles (although Paul McCartney did perform during the last run), but they expect to be entertained.
The X Factor follows the time-honoured formula first enunciated by the bestselling Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry, make 'em wait.''
So when the show's star Simon Cowell told last year's contestants Jedward that "doing a backflip during 'Fly Me to the Moon' is like eating a sandwich while swimming'', the audience could only titter.
The show's peak of popularity during last year's extended run by the inspiringly-quiffed Grimes Twins showed that the audience is looking for characters as much as musical talent. All the leading figures of reality TV, from Jade Goody of Big Brother to Susan Boyle of Britain's Got Talent, have veered towards the eccentric.
Laughter is often accompanied by pathos, of course. When Daniel Evans, a swimming-pool attendant, told The X Factor audience in 2008 how he was raising his three kids on his own after his wife died in childbirth, heart strings were duly tugged. The judge Cheryl Cole dabbed away tears, along with the audience.
Back stories about ordinary people overcoming adversity to live their dream clearly keep the viewers watching.
Even if they don't become musical stars, contestants can spin their victimhood stories into careers as minor celebrities. During her time on The X Factor, the singer Rowetta Satchell revealed that she had been a victim of domestic violence.
After later revealing that she was also a recovering alcoholic, the singer was able to turn her TV experience to good effect by appearing on a reality show Rehab.
After prompting laughter and tears in the audience, The X Factor follows the third part of the Wilkie Collins formula: "Make em wait."
Viewers are left in suspense as long as possible during the show. The Daily Telegraph TV critic Michael Deacon recently argued that it is the most expertly-produced programme on television. By that he does not mean to suggest that it is elegant or classy. He contends that it is as painstakingly assembled as a thriller.
Running order is crucial. During their run last year, Jedward usually performed towards the end. The producers knew that they were the act viewers were waiting for, so they forced viewers to sit through every ad break.
The results are delivered in such a way as to keep viewers on the edges of their couches. The presenter solemnly declares that the names of the successful contestants are read out "in no particular order''. But the results of the most popular acts are rarely read out early.
While musical critics are sharpening their daggers on the return of the programme, fast food delivery firms are no doubt licking their lips and increasing their order books.
When the Domino's Pizza delivery chain announced a 56pc surge in profits earlier this year it attributed part of its success to the popularity of The X Factor. When the programme is on, viewers stay at home, drop their cooking utensils and order in food.
One takeaway delivery firm even claimed that it could accurately predict the losers in The X Factor by the number of orders it received. During the least popular acts they received the most calls.
Like Ryan Tubridy's The Late Late Show, The X Factor has benefited from the fact that in the recession fewer people can afford to go out.
You know a programme has a grip on society when political leaders compete with each other to natter about it. David Cameron said of his X Factor experience "you only need to watch a few minutes and suddenly, 40 minutes later, you're still nailed to your chair'', while Fianna Fail compared Enda Kenny to Jedward (an ill-judged jibe perhaps, considering the twins' popularity).
Critics may be right when they say most of the singers on the show are largely free of any discernible talent: but the same charge cannot be levelled against the show's creators. As one judge has observed, they have produced a contentious, uproarious, sensation-filled spectacle. They have star quality. They have nailed it. They have made that stage their own.
The X Factor starts on ITV on Saturday night at 7.30pm