X Factor: does ITV show still have that certain charismatic appeal 10 years on?

Simon Cowell’s talent contest, which makes ITV £100m a series, returns on Saturday with Sharon Osbourne and an overhaul

When The X Factor returns to the nation’s screens for its 10th year tonight, there will be more at stake than the prospects of a fresh crop of singing hopefuls.

Simon Cowell has overseen a make-over of the talent show in the hope of turning around a drop in viewing figures and retaining its crown as the biggest show on British television.

The pop mogul has overhauled The X Factor’s audition stages and turned to Sharon Osbourne, a fans’ favourite, to please advertisers who will fork out more than £100,000 for a 30-second spot on the hitmaking show.

The X Factor routinely makes ITV as much as £100m a series, but the show returns from its lowest audience since 2006 – last year 11 million watched James Arthur, right, win the final.

“For advertisers it’s one of the biggest TV events in the calendar and they’ll be watching the numbers closely to ensure that viewers are still watching in their masses,” said Sam McCormick, head of TV at media agency Arena.

Richard Holloway, The X Factor’s executive producer who initiated a root and branch review after the last series, said Cowell keeps a very careful eye on the show from the pop mogul’s base in Los Angeles.

He may only have appeared for less than a minute at a pared-down X Factor launch press conference on Thursday, but the changes that will be revealed this weekend are anything but superficial.With Take That frontman Gary Barlow expected to make this his last series, Cowell has turned to Osbourne, who sprinkles performers with praise – “fabulous, darling” is her phrase of choice – but doesn’t pull any punches in her choice of put downs to those coming up short on talent. “We’re miserable and we ain’t doing that shit,” she spits when asked to assist in one singer’s routine.

Executives have gone back to basics for the auditions. Instead of a baying mob of fans, contestants will appear first in a stripped-back room in front of the four judges. If they are successful at this stage, viewers will see them perform again in a “double audition” before a 4,000-strong audience at Wembley.

This gimmick may serve to boost the show’s appeal to audiences across each weekend, coming back for another dose of an earlier favourite, and that is good news for trying to keep advertisers on board who are hungry to keep hitting millions of viewers. Last year they paid on average about £110,000 for a 30-second , although on “special” nights – such as the opening weekend, semi finals and final – huge premiums are leveraged by ITV with the price going potentially as high as an eyewatering £250,000. Based on the dip in audience this year it is likely to be 10%-15% lower.

The show has something of a patchy track record in creating household stars who last longer than their debut album. For every One Direction, JLS and Leona Lewis there are many more who have sunk without a trace.he star judges appear unconcerned about the prospects of their protégés once the series draws to a close. “Where they choose to go and how they choose to make a career after [the show], it’s kind of up to them really,” said Barlow at the press launch. “I know this show is heavily based on us mentoring and all the rest of it, but people really are in control of their own destinies in this show.”

The show’s longest-serving judge, Louis Walsh, said: “They’re only dropped if they’re not selling records. At least this show gives them the chance to make one record they never ever would. I think it’s the best platform for anybody.”

Arthur’s debut single, Impossible, entered the UK singles chart at No 1 and has sold more than 1.3m copies, making it the second bestselling X Factor winner’s single after Alexandra Bruke’s Hallelujah.

The new format has a gut-wrenching moment in tomorrow night’s show, when a 16-year-old singer who astounded the judges in her first audition suffers an attack of stage fright when she has to perform before a packed stadium.

Barlow said of the new format: “When it’s in front of an arena, it’s very much a show. It feels like we’re part of a big show, but when you’re in the rooms and it is just one person, four judges and a hundred cameramen it’s very intimate.

“It makes you more emotional when they’re singing and you can see how they’re fighting with their lives. You do get swept along.”

One contestant destined for the latter stages of the competition is Sam Bailey, a 36-year-old prison officer who delivers this year’s “SuBo moment” in tonight’s series opener. Another hopeful in the first weekend is 17-year-old Hannah Barrett, whose troubled home life and affecting vocals brought a tear to Walsh’s eye.

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