Five years ago, it was the most popular show on British television: now the future of The X Factor is being called into question by ITV’s likely purchase of The Voice.
Simon Cowell’s singing contest attracted an audience of 6.4 million on Saturday, far below its 2010 peak when 17.2 million viewers watched Matt Cardle win the competition. The previous weekend, it was watched by 5.6 million – the lowest since the show’s launch episode in 2004. Meanwhile, BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing, which aired opposite The X Factor on Saturday, was watched by 9.2 million.
Duncan Gray, a former ITV controller of entertainment, said the ITV show had fallen out of kilter with the zeitgeist. “Unlike Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor is a very Blairite show. It has become increasingly venal over the years and is all about being powerful and rich and in an age of austerity,” he said.
“This decade has seen the backlash of the nerds. We prefer to watch people bake wonderful cakes rather than people saying my life will be over if I don’t get this record deal. There are so many more worrying things going on than watching a bunch of desperadoes say their lives will be over if they don’t win.”
With just a year to go of a £150m three-year contract signed with ITV in 2013, many analysts wonder if The X Factor’s 13th series in 2016 will be its last on the commercial network.
Cowell and ITV have tried to introduce changes. Recent innovations include introducing a fresh set of judges, including Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw, and making increased use of live coverage rather than edited recordings.
While ITV has not confirmed that a deal had been signed to take over The Voice, it has already committed to a children’s version of the show.
The big question for ITV will then be when to schedule The Voice. The broadcaster’s three-year deal for The X Factor included Cowell’s other big talent show Britain Got Talent, which attracted an average audience of 10 million when it aired before Easter this year and which ITV will not want to lose.
Most analysts expect The Voice to run in the new year slot that it has occupied on the BBC, especially now ITV has pulled the plug on Dancing on Ice, which previously aired in January.
After a weekend in which the BBC admitted that “another broadcaster had poached” The Voice, ITV downplayed any disappointment with The X Factor. A spokesman said that once the consolidated, seven-day catchup figures were included, viewing figures for the previous week’s edition reached 7.2 million, far higher than the low of 5.6 million that was reported. In addition, X Factor’s average percentage of viewers in the advertiser-friendly 16-34 age group was 46% compared with an average of 25% for Strictly.
Cowell, who makes nearly all the creative decisions on The X Factor, will not want his show to appear like an also-ran behind The Voice.
“It’s more about perception than commercial success for Cowell,” said one veteran TV producer. “If I were ITV, I’d use The Voice as a stick to beat him into some kind of creative collaboration.”
There are continued rumours that Cowell will move his show to a rival such as Sky if ITV does not renew its X Factor contract. However, the subscription broadcaster has a far lower audience than the free-to-air ITV.
“Cowell is about selling records, not making TV and you best do that with really big audiences,” said one producer. “Sky doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance as long as ITV is still keen.”