A few years ago I found myself as the warm-up act for a well-established magician in Manchester, England. After the show, I was talking to the headline magician about his plans once his tour was over. He told me he was working on some stuff for TV, by which I assumed he meant magic shows.
He told me no, actually, he was working with a particularly well-known singing competition — he consulted on the psychological aspect of the TV show. At the time, I didn’t even realise this was a thing.
I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but from what he told me, it didn’t take long to deduce that the show he was talking about The X Factor.
I was intrigued. After doing some thorough research, I discovered that there is an entire market of betting enthusiasts who analyse every aspect of these kinds of shows.
They do this in order to give themselves a statistical edge when gambling. While it’s not the most conventional thing to bet on, it’s certainly got a niche following of sorts.
It is a common misconception that reality talent shows are simply that, talent shows; however, there is much more hiding behind the curtain. If the viewer can notice the intended outcome of the show, they can adjust their bets accordingly to significantly improve their odds of winning.
More than meets the eye
This article will go to as much length as possible in order to help the viewer notice the manipulation tactics used so that you too can apply them when necessary.
I will focus mostly on the tactics used by The X Factor because it’s the most accessible and popular programme in this category. Even those who don’t watch the show will recognise many of the methods I describe.
Firstly, you don’t need to watch The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent for enjoyment purposes in order to analyse and predict the goings-on. You can watch them simply as an exercise in manipulation if you find it difficult to enjoy the intended purpose of the show (and many do!).
Additionally, by watching the show from a perspective of psychological analysis rather than entertainment purposes, an incredible hidden layer of enjoyment presents itself.
I personally watch the show for gambling purposes, but find that the enjoyment of picking up on manipulation techniques is just as enjoyable as watching the show as intended.
The producers call the shots
Most of the general public believe what they see on the surface, and indeed, one can’t blame them for seeing things that way. When someone as iconic as Simon Cowell resides on the judging panel, the public naturally assumes they are the ones in charge.
You can say the same for Gary Barlow, or Tom Jones on The Voice or Len Goodman on Strictly Come Dancing. It is difficult to fathom that someone as powerful as Simon Cowell is answering to a higher power. However, that is exactly what’s going on.
The judges are simply employees. The producers instruct them how to act and tell them what to say under every circumstance. Indeed, there is very little that the judges have any kind of control over.
The producers have also predetermined the decisions the judges will make – in a way, the judges are simply the producers’ puppets.
There have been numerous rumours over the years of judges going off-script and letting their true opinions shine. However, it’s difficult to say with certainty when this has happened for sure. Staged arguments between judges are commonplace for reasons we will come to later.
On the contrary, a particularly reckless judge was said to be Mel B, who appeared on the 2014 series. It may not be a coincidence that she only judged for one series.
So the question presents itself: why do the producers call the shots? Why can’t they simply let the show flow naturally like a non-televised reality contest?
The X Factor is, in its purest form, an entertainment show. It has the most prestigious slot regarding time and dates. As well as this, it has sponsors and advertisers relying on its success.
Therefore, the show needs to attract lots of viewers. Ten contestants doing generic cover songs isn’t going to pull in the floating viewers who are looking for a quick laugh on a Saturday evening.
Instead, the show needs people like Jedward and Wagner to not only be involved, but to go far. Such ‘joke’ acts cause controversy and outrage, especially when they remain in the competition at the expense of better performers.
Contrastingly, there also needs to be a decent quota of contestants with genuine talent. As the show progresses, it becomes imperative that the producers keep this balance of novelty acts / commercially viable acts in order to appease every demographic possible.
Furthermore, the producers have a clear idea of the acts they want to win the show for post-show careers they believe will highlight The X Factor’s prominence in the music field.
With all of this in mind, the producers will then use many psychological manipulation techniques throughout their shows. The aim of this is to persuade viewers into voting for the contestants the producers want to keep on the show.
These techniques can be anything from sledge-hammer character assassinations to slight visual subtleties. Most of these would pass under the nose of even the most hardened of psychologists. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Firstly, some of the manipulation tactics shows like The X Factor use are incredibly obvious even to the layman. Every X Factor and BGT star fits into a narrative which you can conveniently reduce down to a single sentence.
The hard-working single mother who sings in local pubs for very little money. The cheeky teenage lad who thinks he’s a womaniser. The shy, delicate sweetheart who strums love songs on her guitar.
Before a singer’s performance, we’re often shown video clips of that contestant in their personal life; maybe at their old job, visiting their old school, sitting in a pub with their friend, etc.
At this point, your incredibly perceptive friend will roll their eyes and go “Here we go, another sob story!” What they don’t realise is that these sob stories don’t always exist to make you empathise with the contestant. Sometimes, they do the opposite.
In 2011, the producers realised they needed to stall the momentum of fan-favourite Sophie Habibis in order to push other contestants to the final. Not only did they end up stalling her, they reduced her from fan favourite to eliminated in one show. They did it all with this video.
The video shows Sophie arriving at a pub in her hometown. The audience expects her to be greeted with hundreds of adorning fans (see the One Direction equivalent for reference), but when she arrives, she’s greeted by one person.
This is a phenomena known as social influence. We perceive things to be the ‘correct’ way of doing something when we see others doing it. We see this every day; celebrities using brand name aftershave, sitcom laughter tracks, BGT audience reactions to shocking performances.
When we see Sophie sitting alone with her one friend, we’re being subconsciously told that no one cares about her, and so we shouldn’t either.
What to look for: video clips of contestants sitting alone or with one person. Videos of contestants in social environments but with no one paying attention to them. Shots of rural landscapes during video clips.
You can tell a lot regarding the producers’ intentions by looking at a performer’s staging. What has become apparent over the years on The X Factor is this simple notion:
Red and black staging = producers want the contestant gone.
Blue and white staging = producers want the contestant to go far.
The idea is simple: red and black visuals make us thing of bleak, depressing scenarios. The colours are primarily associated with hell and horror and they have general negative connotations.
This means we subconsciously relegate it to the bottom of an imagined hierarchy of things we enjoy.
On the contrary, you can say the opposite of blue and white themes. Take, for example, the complete magnification of Louisa Johnson throughout her 2015 X Factor run.
In the majority of her performances, she wore white ad had blue backdrops, with regular outright mentions of her being an angel. She was the producers’ favourite from the off and her treatment was evident of this. She won the competition by a large percentage.
What to look for: specific-coloured staging. ‘Messy’ staging, such as a complete overuse of colours. ‘Cluttered’ staging such as too many props or backing dancers. Any staging which takes away attention from the performer.
‘Recall from action’ comments
How many times have you heard Louis Walsh say in his annoyingly-rehearsed voice: “Pick up the phone and vote”?
Lots, probably. Now, how many times have you heard him say: “Everyone in Liverpool [or any town] is voting for you”?
Just as many. On the surface, they both appear to be positive, well-meaning comments. However, the first one is a call to action. Louis is asking for your help. The second, Louis is saying you don’t have to do anything, because everyone else is doing it instead.
This is a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. It’s commonly observed on motorways when hundreds of people pass by a broken down car without stopping – they all assume someone else is helping.
It’s the same here, and it’s a very effective way of slowing down a contestant’s momentum after they’ve given a great performance without resorting to negative comments.
What to look for: “everyone in [town] is voting for you”. “You’ll definitely be here next week”. “You’ll be in the final”. “Whatever happens, you deserve to be here next week”.
In 2016, we saw the brutal slaughter of fan-favourite Beau Dermott on Britain’s Got Talent in a subtle but effective way.
From the four-minute mark in that video, the judges repeatedly praise Beau’s performance. However, each time they do this, someone does something to take attention away from their comments.
Eventually, Amanda throws water over David Walliams, culminating in the judges having a light-hearted altercation.
At the time of her performance Beau was second favourite to win the competition. After this, her odds of winning drastically decreased. The market picked up on this subtlety and the public no longer considered her a viable contender for even the top three. She ended up in fifth place.
Another factor that went into Beau’s elimination was her song choice, although this is often dependant on other circumstances. The song she performed was the same song she auditioned with (a major red flag); a subconscious suggestion that she had peaked and had nothing else to offer.
We’ve all heard the saying: save the best for last. Nowhere is this truer than in TV talent shows. The audience’s attention spans are incredibly short, so when voting opens up once all the performances are over, the acts which will be in the audience’s minds are the ones who went on towards the end.
A particularly revealing statistic regarding BGT is that in nine years of shows, 8 winners have come from the final three performances of the night.
Of course, the above methods are not the only manipulation tactics which go into shows like The X Factor and BGT. There are likely many others, possibly ones we haven’t even considered.
It is fascinating to look beyond the simplicity of these programmes into the thought-provoking happenings which occur behind the scenes.
By keeping the above in mind when watching, it is possible to narrow down your betting options to choices which offer you a statistical edge. For example, if it’s clear that the producers are backing a certain act to do well, placing a bet on that act to be in the top three would be a wise move.
Likewise, if you can see the producers are manipulating an act to be voted off, betting that way would benefit you. It is rarely the outright winner which will afford you the best returns, either. Categories such as last place or bottom three are often the best investments.
This is because it can be easier to spot who will be in the bottom by looking for producer manipulation.
It is also important to note that it is not only The X Factor and BGT which use these techniques; most similar shows do. The tactics will be slightly different depending on the circumstances, but producer exploitation is a staple in reality TV programming.
However, if we can notice it, we can use it to our advantage.