“May you live in interesting times,” says the old Chinese curse. Somebody seems to have willed interesting times onto the X Factor of late and much of it is to do with the ubiquity of social networking.
Cowell’s money machine TV show has always trodden a fine line between seeking privacy for its big announcements and demanding that everyone talk about the show around the water cooler, be it real or virtual, but that need for word of mouth has come back to bite the show on the backside with a vengeance in the last week. Depending who you listen to, that is.
On the audience’s side, there widespread disgruntlement on the social networks at Cheryl Cole’s dismissal of Gamu Nhengu in favour of less well-liked contestants (an act that has brought up ugly slurs reminiscent of the hoo-ha surrounding Cheryl’s alleged racist assault on a nightclub attendant seven years ago – a prime example of how easy it is to switch from nation’s sweetheart to bête noir in a matter of moments) but now, Twitter has been used to leak the names of four wildcard acts who are apparently to be reintroduced to the show in a new feature this weekend. This happened with the names of the 12 finalists as well.
But what the audience, and the people complaining on Twitter, forget is that the X Factor’s modus operandi is not solely about talent; it’s as much about what will generate vast swathes of PR, its about creating the captivating narratives behind the contestants and it’s about engaging public conversation and driving up TV audiences. That’s what keeps contestants on the show.
There is too much debate about the talent, but it needs to be made clear that this is a ruse, a conversational opiate that the people consume gleefully. The talent is only there to serve the commercial designs of the people behind the show – the X Factor is a hard-arsed exercise in accumulating cash. Show business with a capital BUSINESS. So few singers involved in the show go on to a serious career and any that do only keep that career as long as they march to the tune of the bosses. The only real winners are the owners of the format.
Just to emphasize the point, take a look at the X-Factor PR team, who are really playing a clever game with this series. I strongly suspect that they may be deliberately leaking info and then claiming to be upset, thus generating more stories. There is certainly a constant back and forth of “someone’s pissed of with someone else in the X Factor” stories bouncing all around the media and the Internet. All of this boosts the show, the ability to make money, and more often than not it is at the expense of the ‘talent’.
It’ll be interesting to see what impact Twitter will have when the show turns to the live format. The X Factor team are surely hoping that the live shows will stem the willy-nilly flow of information onto the Internet. They really do like to own every aspect. I personally don’t think tweeting in real time can become a major force until it’s voice generated; I don’t think it’s possible to type and respond in real-time. What’s being tweeted will already be passé by the time it’s written. You need an a speedy typist to do it for you.
I think tweeting in real time to a celebrity, watching a live TV show, will be a great PR story, possibly in conjunction with or for a client with internet enabled TV, YouView, IPTV, GoogleTV etc. But the individuals who prefer their followers to family prefer privacy in their messaging; just look how big comparatively Text and Blackberry messaging are to Twitter.
Very few of the X Factor hopefuls are likely to find themselves in this position, mind you. It would probably be seen as too dangerous for the show’s brand.
Talking of bad for the brand, I heard the other morning that there is to be a production at the Barbican where the audience will arrive at 11.00 pm, lie in beds and fall sleep, to be woken by cast eight hours later who will serve them breakfast. Going to cost £42? The producer was quoted as saying he’s been to the theatre himself and fallen asleep, so he’s doing the show to put you to sleep.
I’m not convinced that this is the best PR stunt. Surely it just reinforces the stereotypical view that the theatre is a dull place. Theatre needs to reawaken itself and interest in it, not tell people that it’ll put you to sleep.
Add in the fact that you wouldn’t pay that much to sleep in a youth hostel, let alone an emergency shelter for the middle classes, and it amounts to a PR fail in my book.
A more entertaining, if also somewhat self-defeating, PR stunt is the news that Little Chef have produced a T-Shirt commemorating their 50th Anniversary. The slogan on the shirt is “I love Charlie”, which is allegedly the name of their mascot – who I always thought was called Fat Charlie.
PR spin says that hordes of students are buying the t-shirt with a smirk, because of the “difficult to spot Peruvian marching powder reference”. It can’t be that difficult to spot, surely? It was obvious to me and a mother who spotted her teenage son wearing the T-Shirt is up in arms. Stirring up a little PR controversy never hurt anyone, but surely it would help if it were relevant to – and unlikely to damage – the brand.