In Brief

The X Factor: farewell to Simon Cowell’s talent circus

The talent show hadn’t actually been on air since 2018, but its death knell was officially sounded last week

“Like a knackered old cruise singer” finally facing the inevitable, The X Factor has left the stage, said Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian. The talent show hadn’t actually been on air since 2018, but its death knell was officially sounded last week, with ITV’s confirmation that there are no plans to bring it back.

In its heyday, the show – which ran for 14 years – was a “well-oiled machine for churning out pop stars and Christmas No. 1s”. Its caustic creator and judge Simon Cowell was a pop “kingmaker” who used it to promote mega-acts such as One Direction and JLS. But the world has changed: fans now “like to find music for themselves”, on TikTok or YouTube.

The X Factor was the last moment where TV reigned supreme, and everyone had to share a screen,” said Sean O’Neill in Vice. It could command the attention of the whole family – of a vast range of different demographics. And it traded on a “moving idea”: that there were “bona fide stars kicking about your sixth form, or working on your dentist’s front desk, just waiting to be propelled into stardom”.

It certainly made for “great telly”, attracting 20 million people on Saturday nights at its peak in the noughties, said Amy Nickell in The Independent. But it was, to a large extent, about laughing at people: to this day, “Worst X Factor auditions” easily outperform “Best X Factor auditions” on YouTube.

And there was a human cost: vulnerable teenagers and people with mental illnesses were exploited for entertainment, with none of the safeguarding that even the most gruesome reality TV shows offer today.

It wasn’t just about humiliation, said Julie Burchill in The Spectator. The X Factor was one of the few places where “a talented working-class kid could make their voice heard – literally”. And it did feature some “breathtaking performances” by such genuinely talented artists as Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Little Mix.

Yes, the desire to wring every last drop of emotion out of contestants’ stories grew cloying. But “in its cheap and cheesy heyday”, the show “communicated more about the human desire to aspire and achieve than any boring old quality drama ever could”.

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