In a striking number of folkloric traditions the number 13 is synonymous with excess and things coming undone. ITV is hoping those folks are wrong. As the 13th series of X Factor streams into our handheld living rooms the rumour mill once again begins to whirl. This time the big name in line for a potential one-series guest stint is Calvin Harris. Post-Swift you can see why his people would be jockeying for that kind of exposure. A succession of novelty faces –Kelly Rowland, Rita Ora, Mel B, Katy Perry- has been and gone, and in doing so the singing contest’s talking points have been focused more on the judging than the judged.
If star power is what you go by this makes perfect commissioning sense. But this isn’t always how the programme won fans. For the first 7 series the judging panel barely changed- the constant factors being Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell. Come 2016 and these two sparring partners are still in the line-up. Around them has grown a variety show of talents from A-Z all jostling for attention. This leaves surprisingly little ground for new stars to emerge. ITV’s idea of promoting the new panel is likely to fail. Think Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop factor.
For all the on-probation celebs, X Factor has to thrive or fail on the quality of the stories it uncovers. It isn’t enough to be a plucky young kid from the wrong estate or to have overcome a debilitating illness- to break new ground you have to tell us something we haven’t heard before. This is hard work: it requires an extensive period of scouting followed by active support and nurturing of the contestants. And of course a whiff of talent wouldn’t hurt.
Having spent the last few weeks basking in the Olympic glory of our superhuman sports stars we may be inclined to wince at this cynical formula. Yet it is the power of personality and backstory that lifts physical ability from the realms of GDR-era body worship to meaningful fame.
As ever Rio threw up a handful of picture perfect moments –the Brownlee brothers’ star finish, Golden couple Laura Trott and Jason Kenny. To turn these moments into lasting fame –and consequently to accumulate the sponsorship, public distinction and partnerships within reach of a medal winner- is to compete in a uniquely challenging field. Not all sportspersons are inclined to bother –there are much easier ways to end up sharing a sofa with Graham Norton than the bucket loads of sweat, blood and tears required to get you on the Olympics shortlist. But the determination and discipline that is required for professional sport does help explain why stars like Beckham who were written off as bland and dim were able to transform themselves into charming media personalities. The Olympians will ultimately fail if they cannot demonstrate showmanship outside the sporting arena. A contrived narrative is not going to provide a series of compelling stories that audiences can share. This is the final hurdle to a sporting career- but it can often be the most rewarding one.