The rise of event television – and its burgeoning aligment with social media – has brought with it a new metric of success in recent years: "engagement". Unlike conventional TV ratings, engagement isn't directly convertible into revenue. It's more a means of assuring sponsors and advertisers that they're buying reach into viewers' thoughts and feelings.
TV3 has employed a "head of engagement" since it licensed the The Block format for broadcast in 2012, and it has a pretty good story to tell. Last year, our suburb filled up on a Saturday morning, as families came from all over the city –and quite possibly from Hamilton – to tour the open homes. Children actually carried signs touting their favourite building teams. You may, like me, have found the whole thing unfathomably dull, but there's no denying it got into people's hearts and minds.
And when Mediaworks announced last August that it would be producing a second series of The X Factor, the one screening at the moment, it was with this brag:
The X Factor NZ was the most talked about show in TV3’s history, dominating news headlines and water cooler conversations, and setting record levels of social media engagement.
Mediaworks TV director of programing Mark Caulton declared:
“The X Factor was the biggest pop culture show of 2013 and with Season 2 we can expect it to be bigger and better. We’ll be introducing innovative new aspects to the programme and will again be extending online through our websites and social media communities, and working with our partners at MediaWorks Radio.”
Five of the six "X Factor by the numbers" bullet points at the bottom of TV3's press release do not relate to broadcast TV ratings and the other is a 5+ cume fudge for the series as a whole. Again, this isn't about ratings per se, which TV3 probably didn't win most nights.
The format of The X Factor, like that of all such shows, is designed on the Wildean principle that where sponsors and advertisers are concerned, it's not only better to be talked about than not talked about, it's absolutely bloody essential. The key part of the licensing transaction is the provision of a format "Bible", which serves both to protect the interests of the format's owner and guide the licensee towards successful engagement.
Keeping to the bible often means scripting elements of the show, including those which may not appear scripted. It also means generating controversy. Thus, the long list of X factor controversies – including, remarkably, the frequent accusations that it is rigged – serve the format's purpose.
Which brings us to this bizarre confrontation from last night's live show:
On one level, this simply looks like the bible at work, even unto Mediaworks radio staff doing their bit to fan the outrage.
On the other, the behaviour in recent days of one of the "bad" judges, New Zealand-born pop singer Willy Moon, in calling a 51 year-old member of the public a "cunt", both to her face and subsequently and repeatedly on his Twitter account (and this after TV3 had published an apology on his behalf) seems actually deranged.
X Factor host Dominic Bowden might be seen to have trailered the incident with his warning to Moon's wife's and fellow judge, pop singer Natalia Kills that last night's show was going out live. And certainly, encouraging the crowd to hate on a villain and manufactured "tensions" between judges are very much part of the X Factor format.
But I do wonder if this was in the script:
Kills' tirade came after Irvine performed Cry Me a River during the live broadcast.
"As an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property, I am disgusted at how much you have copied my husband, from the hair to the suit," Kills said.
"Do you not have any value or respect for originality?
"You're a laughing stock. It's cheesy, it's disgusting, I personally found it absolutely artistically atrocious. I am embarrassed to be sitting here in your presence having to even dignify you with an answer of my opinion ... it's disgusting, you make me sick ... I'm ashamed to even be here."
Moon, who hit headlines over the weekend for allegedly swearing at an Auckland mother in a bakery, continued the criticism. "To me, it just feels a little bit cheap and absurd," he said of the performance.
Moon said Irvine reminded him of Psycho killer Norman Bates: "It's just a little bit creepy ... I feel like you're going to stitch someone's skin to your face and then kill everyone in the audience."
The last part, at least, is surely stretching the limit of what's acceptable on what is still supposed to be a family show. The whole thing was the kind of bonkers we usually associate with meth heads (not that I am saying they are that, just that it was incoherent and narcissistic). My guess is that the two designated judging villains were primed to be controversial but came out with something that went rather further than that.
That they did might say something about their own pop careers. Does Moon really not have a reputation worth more than the few tens of thousands of dollars he'll earn from contracting to a reality TV show? I suppose it's all good fun until an outraged viewer assaults them in public. But however it got to air, it seems risky for Mediaworks to be presenting its two star judges as a pair of gibbering crackheads.
We have already reached some kind of milestone of farce with the 21,000-strong petition on change.org calling for the pair to be dumped.
Plainly, this is absurd. And like me, you Public Address readers probably have no more intention of watching The X Factor than you did yesterday.