Twin reality behemoths boost ITV, BBC

'X Factor,' 'Strictly Come Dancing' set U.K. viewing record

The year 2010 was supposed to speed the mass migration of viewers from the U.K.’s free-to-air TV networks to video-on-demand and social media websites.

Well, it didn’t happen — thanks to two reality behemoths.

While it’s true that, after a decade, “Big Brother” finally checked out of the schedules following a slide in popularity, two other reality vehicles sped ahead. ITV1’s talent show “The X Factor” and BBC1’s “Strictly Come Dancing” propelled the two most popular networks to a 20-year viewing peak.

Between 8:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Dec. 12, a record-breaking 31.9 million Brits were watching either “X Factor” as it wrapped its seventh season or the semifinal of “Strictly” — quite an achievement in a country of 62.4 million.

“X Factor” was seen by an average of 17.7 million viewers, making it Blighty’s most popular TV show in 2010.

The following Sunday, the finale of “Strictly,” which airs as “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC, won an audience of 13.1 million — a 47.6 share — up three million over the previous year’s show.

Audience figures on this scale are extremely rare these days, particularly because viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from, to go along with digitaldistractions such as VOD, DVRs, the channels’ own catch-up services, iPhone apps and social media websites.

“Oddly, it’s the triumph of old-fashioned TV, not social networking that’s generating these huge audiences — although social media helps to generate noise around these programs,” observes Jean Seaton, professor of media history at London’s Westminster U. “They’re like old-fashioned soap operas, with manufactured storylines that are built up over a period of time that allow the narrative to develop.”

To maximize their impact, “X Factor” and “Strictly Come Dancing” no longer restrict themselves to a weekly Saturday night broadcast, traditionally the time when families in the U.K. sit down and watch TV together.

Both the BBC and, especially, ITV, have invested millions to achieve this success, expanding the shows beyond their once-a-week Saturday primetime spots by adding the Sunday results show, first introduced a year ago by “X Factor,” taking its cue from U.S. shows. And it has obviously paid off.

Much of the kudos must go to Simon Cowell, the mastermind behind “X Factor,” who is prepping a U.S. version for the fall.

“The fact is that Cowell has saved Saturday nights for terrestrial television,” says the Times’ TV critic Andrew Billen. “Cowell has not done so with porn or violence but with glamour, heightened production values and meticulously generated tension. By doing so — it is only a slight exaggeration to say — he rescued ITV, and perhaps preserved television itself as a medium of mass experience.”

Although “X Factor” and “Strictly” are lumped together under the all-embracing reality genre, Seaton says they are different shows. What they have in common is that both are talent contests in which competitors are eliminated over the course of the season. And both are about the opposite of talent, Seaton says, in that people tune in to watch those who fail.

But, Seaton adds, “X Factor” is criticized for manipulating wannabes and audiences alike, sucking the authenticity out of pop music — albeit in a show that looks determined to keep raising the bar in terms of production values.

“Whereas ‘Strictly’ is quite endearing, because a lot of it is tongue-in-check,” she says.

Ultimately, whatever their reasons for watching, auds are tuning in rather than surfing, and for cash-strapped ITV and the BBC, that can only be good news.