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The death of the talent show

The X Factor is back, but it’s entirely possible that you may not have noticed – with an average viewership of 5.7 million, the launch show ratings were its lowest ever. With the allure of talent shows simply decreasing year on year, is it finally time for them to be put out of commission? Or could we explain the decline, and possibly even figure out how to reverse it?

I write this against the backdrop of an actual talent show death – Channel 5 has announced its current series will see the end of Big Brother and its celebrity variant. The show, first aired in 2000, saw its popularity and viewing figures plunge throughout its life, with this year’s celebrity series denounced as featuring few big names – it had hoped that Stormy Daniels (a master of self-promotion if there ever was one) would get viewers to tune in, but she pulled out last minute. Watchers were left with people like psychic Sally Morgan and kidnap victim Chloe Ayling – the biggest name was probably Kirstie Alley, and she hasn’t been in anything since 1993.

Is it finally time for them to be put out of commission?

The lack of big names has also struck Strictly Come Dancing this year. We have a mix of people who were actually big about 15 years ago (Steps’ Faye Tozer, Blue’s Lee Ryan, Susannah Constantine) and people you’ve not really heard of (Vick Hope, the brother of Youtuber Zoella). It’s a bit of a dismal line-up (the show’s supposed curse putting a lot of people off), and the launch show attracted its lowest ratings in six years.

So, onto The X Factor – you almost have to laugh at Simon Cowell’s seeming conviction that the make-up of the judging panel is the thing that always draws in audiences. This year, he is joined by Robbie Williams, Ayda Field and Louis Tomlinson, but the show is exactly the same as ever. Sob stories, humiliating the poor singers and building triumphant narratives around the good ones – it’s typical X Factor, as you’ve seen every year for what seems like forever.

Sure, there may be some hints of actual talent, but these shows have increasingly become a way for fame-hungry talent vacuums to attempt to build a media profile, and line their own pockets in the process. We enjoyed Big Brother in 2000 because it was a novel premise, and the thrill of watching ordinary people interact was interesting and exciting. Nowadays, the people are far from ordinary, and the manufactured drama simply isn’t as appealing.

Sob stories, humiliating the poor singers and building triumphant narratives around the good ones

I would go so far as to suggest that their proliferation has been harmful to society. These shows suggest that its alright to get rid of people you don’t like, that popularity is important above all else, that you don’t need to work at something to become successful, that fame and the pursuit of fame is a goal in and of itself – in a period when people are becoming increasingly insular, the talent show turns some of our worst traits into virtues.

A lot of these talent shows have simply gone on for far too long, and minor tweaks of the formula aren’t going to make them any more interesting. People still tune in in large enough numbers that I wouldn’t expect to see them get cancelled, but the excitement is simply no longer there – the formats have become stale, and there’s only so long that people can watch the same old thing before they tire of it.

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