And so we’re off, as two primetime juggernauts leave the starting lines in their annual race for autumn telly supremacy, millions of viewers are being left with a distinctly bad taste in their mouths. In the red corner, The X Factor, previously positively nonchalant in its domination of the Saturday night schedules,is now paying the price for complacency in Simon Cowell’s absence, and appears to have been blind sided by its rival. In the blue corner, we have Strictly Come Dancing, once a cuddly, glittery carnival of a saturday night tv show, which is now spitting feathers rather than adorning costumes with them as it attempts to continue its recent run of ratings luck against its aforementioned rival. Whether you are a Strictly superfan or an X Factor afficionado one thing is for sure, you are in a much better position than the many viewers who are staunch fans of both shows.
Back in 2010, when Simon Cowell and Cheryl Fernandez Versini (both widely acknowledged as being X Factor ratings rescuers) last graced the X Factor judging panel, viewers could watch both shows, with Strictly being aired at teatime and the X Factor beginning at 8 o’clock just as Tess and dear old departed Brucie advised us to ‘keeep dancing!’ as the end credits rolled on the dancing show.
This year however, spurred on no doubt by the return of the aforementioned Cowell and Versini, Strictly threw the first punch at the beginning of September by scheduling its launch show up against an episode of the X Factor, throwing down the gauntlet for a ratings war like no other, and thoroughly riling Simon Cowell in the process. This weekend, as Strictly launches proper, Cowell has naturally responded in kind putting the X Factor on across the whole weekend, scheduling the first episode of the show’s boot camp stage directly against Strictly on Friday night at 9pm (the first ever Friday night X Factor in the ten year history of the show.)
So who came up trumps in round one? According to early ratings round ups Strictly was the official winner with a lead of over a million on the ITV show. And it certainly put on a spectacle to be reckoned with. This year’s line up is strong and as usual the show mixed the surprising (who knew Max Branning could dance?) with the predictable (we all knew Judy Murray would not be able to dance) very well. There was cha cha cha-ing, music, cheesy VTs and sequins, and while I feel the opener missed Bruce Forsythe’s banter with the judges, Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman certainly held the show together well. Which is more than could be said for the car crash unfolding over on ITV, as Cheryl made a right hash of which six girls to put through to her judges houses round. With only six seats to allocate to, in her own words ‘25,000 girls’, moderation didn’t seem to be a word in Cheryl’s vocabulary as she developed what appeared to be a case of take-a-seat-tourrettes, offering a seat to the first six girls who performed despite the fact that two thirds of the girls had yet to sing for their supper.
This forced Cheryl- prone to tears at the best of times but by this point seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown- to remove several weepy girls from their seats. Cue much booing from the crowd, a Mel B walk out and Simon repeatedly telling Cheryl that she had ‘made a huge mistake’. And here is where I feel that Strictly has the edge. With its simplistic, yet winning formula, Strictly never fails to deliver. Yes there always arises the inevitable controversy where one contstant is found to have undergone previous dance training, but this samba subterfuge has nothing on the X Factor which, in the absense of any real controversy, tends to produce its own. At the eleventh hour with six emotionally fragile young women having already mentally packed their suitcases to join Cheryl in the South of France, Mrs Versini- egged on no doubt by Simon’s protestations and a fear of being lynched- had a crisis of confidence and brought back Chloe Jasmine, a producers’ favourite due to her quirky look and reality TV previous, who appeared on stage blinking like a mole who had just emerged from the abyss of bootcamp rejection into the spotlight once more. Many viewers do not appreciate this sort of contrived emotional manipulation. Cheryl should have stuck to her guns. She had not made a mistake in getting rid of Chloe Jasmine, the other girls were better singers, and as the judge who mentored Cher Lloyd to success despite the misgivings of producers, she should have had a little more faith in her decisions. Over on Strictly meanwhile, the most controversial moment was Anton Du Beke giving the viewers and the judges a little more than they had bargained for when his kilt flew up during a spinning sequence in his waltz with sporting matriarch Judy Murray.
Perhaps the truth is that Strictly does not have to create synthetic drama. Perhaps its formula is simply more enduring. Only time will tell. For now however, regardless of who wins the ratings war, by embarking on weekend-long marathons and clashing their starting times, the only losers are the loyal viewers, who, reduced to quivering indecisive wrecks, would be better putting both shows on sky plus and going out.