Why does the X Factor always get a number one, and The Voice doesn’t, when they’re so similar?

TV talent shows are glorious operatic narratives of success & failure voted for by the public. I’ve been watching The Voice and getting distressed because no-one seems to be talking about its fundamental design issues. When you compare the two shows through the lens of game design, it’s a really good primer in designing for participation and empathy. 

There are basic similarities in the structure of the two shows – both are vocal talent shows where participants are assessed by celebrities, and participants are eliminated each week – but as soon as you start looking past the basics, you realise that the framing of those elements, and the role assigned to the audience, are so different. I’d argue that the question of getting a post-competition number one or not is structurally baked in to the different ways the public are asked to act in each show. Subtle changes to the design of the competition have quite fundamental affects on how the audience feel about the contestants, and their role in anointing the winners.

A nice young chap winning The VoiceIt’s the difference between giving the audience actual power to change things, and just asking them to lean back and enjoy something. Both are great to watch, but historically only one of them makes large numbers of their audience want to drop money on a single after the TV show has finished.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the two shows are structured, here’s a quick comparison:

X Factor The Voice

Preliminary auditions off-screen

Both the good and the hilariously bad are put through to televised auditions in front of the judges. All will be presented as ingenues.

Preliminary auditions off-screen

A range of strong candidates are selected including washed up celebrities, weekend giggers and strong amateur singers.

Auditions (5 shows)

Auditions in front of judges, possibly an audience. Bad auditions mercilessly trashed. A yes vote from a majority of judges puts a contestant through to the next round. Judges do not yet know which category they will be mentoring.

Auditions (7 shows)

Auditions in front of coaches and audience. Coaches chairs face away, and only if a coach is committing to offering mentoring do they get to turn their chair and see the contestant singing. If more than one coach turns round, they pitch against each other and the contestant chooses who to go with. Each coach has twelve places available on their team, and once they have filled them they can take no further part in the auditions.

Bootcamp (2 shows)

A series of performances in front of judges and audiences. Judges work together to pick 24 acts to go through to the next stage. Judges are assigned a category to mentor by the producers at the end of this stage.

Battle rounds (2 shows)

Coaches pit members of their own team against each other in duets to whittle 12 team members down to 6. At the end of each duet the coach must choose the contestant they want to keep on their team. Each coach gets one steal to save a contestant dropped from another judge’s team.

Judges Houses (2 shows)

Contestants go to the judge’s house in a glamorous location to start the grooming process. Each judge whittles their team down from six to three to present to the public in the live rounds.

Knockout rounds (2 shows)

Each remaining contestant gets to pick their own song to best showcase their talent. The coaches choose who they want to put forward to the live rounds.

Live rounds (10 shows)

Twelve contestants compete in live rounds for the public vote over ten weeks. Each week the two with the lowest public votes do a sing-off, with the judges saving the one they deem performed best. When the number of contestants is reduced to four, this mechanism is changes so that the lowest voted contestant is automatically eliminated.

Live rounds (3 shows) 

Over three weeks the singers from each team perform, and the public are asked to vote for their favourites. In the first of the three weeks, the coach decides after the performance which of their team they will give a free pass to the next round to, so the public vote only decides second place. In the second week, one of the final two of each coach’s team is eliminated, and in the final the contestant with the smallest number of votes is eliminated, before the remaining three contestants sing again and the finalist with the highest number of votes wins for their coach.

Putting yourself forward for a competition, to be judged and possibly fail, involves making yourself vulnerable in a way that has largely been removed from adult life. We get out of the habit of doing it publicly, most of us. But openness and vulnerability is the basis for all genuine, emotionally touching human exchanges. It’s how friendships are made and deepened. Making yourself open to failure by taking a risky action and getting feedback on it is one of the fundamental building blocks of what makes games fun – tension and release. Brace for a moment of feedback, then breathe out.

Talent shows package human vulnerability into a handy interactive format, one that makes wanting to vote on premium rate phone lines a fun part of your Saturday night. Those kids are under such pressure, they want it so bad. Live shows with voting are all about the building pressure and cathartic release. Brace, then breathe out.

A contestant at The Voice tries not to cry In the X Factor, judges are presented as high status, invulnerable. Contestants start with low status, nothing they’ve achieved before matters, and by auditioning they make themselves open to being crushed further – getting  to audition in front of the judges doesn’t mean you won’t be humiliated.

Here’s Simon Cowell preparing to give someone the benefit of his wisdom and experience, for example.

Simon Cowell prepares to crush someone

The lower the contestants start the better, because it makes the public’s act of voting for them, and thus raising their status, more satisfying. It’s the meat of the show for ten weeks. The best possible X Factor candidate is shy, a bit frumpy, beaten down by life. Last year’s winner Sam Bailey, a prison officer in her mid thirties, was a perfect candidate. Watch her audition and get goosebumps.

Then burn for her as Robbie Williams dismisses her (2:06 if you just want to cut to the snark)

And thrill to the transformation wrought in the white heat of competition – here she is triumphantly in the finals, made into a glamorous Amazonian presence by the process she has gone through

The X Factor asks the public to take on contestants as their avatars, to identify with them, and to enjoy building them up over the weeks, and so they’ll do everything they can to build that empathy, and encourage the public to feel ownership. The public can (and do) disagree with the judges, both with the pantomime hissing from the studio audience, but also with their voting. They have real power, and buying a single at the end of the series is a real and honest continuation of their role during the show – raising the contestants up via their regard and approval.

This is not the ask of the Voice. In The Voice, the vulnerability of the contestants is overshadowed by that of the celebrity coaches, whose narrative of success and failure drives the show. If anyone is an avatar here, the contestants are avatars of the coaches. We are treated to four celebrities putting some of their status on the line to assemble and mentor a team and be judged on the success of that process. This is stressful stuff, and we see celebrities going through tension and release.

Coaches on The Voice comfort each otherWhere the judges on X Factor choose contestants to put forward through auditions and battle rounds without knowing which team will be theirs, in The Voice the celebrity coaches are explicitly choosing for their own team. Where in the X Factor contestants need a majority vote to get through, in The Voice the coaches often end up pitching against each other, in a process that gives the contestants all the  status as they choose between coaches who are desperate to have them on their teams. (Leading to headlines like ‘Kylie Minogue ‘Upset’ By Getting Rejected By The Voice’s Female Contestants)

Then the coaches are forced by the competition structure to pit their team against each other, and much is made of their anguish as they whittle down their teams.

Here’s a battle round from the first season, which illustrates the process perfectly.

The public are asked to be final gatekeepers as we watch coaches forced to make hard decisions – keeping in the right artists, choosing the right songs and production styles to show off their protégées voices, building up their confidence.

There are only three live shows for the public to vote in in The Voice, and in one of them the public’s role is reduced to choosing who will take second place, as the mentor gets to keep one singer away from the public vote. The public aren’t invited to lead the show in the way they are in X Factor, where the vast majority of shows involve a public vote and elimination. The contestants aren’t the champions of The Voice viewers. If anything, the public are invited to imagine themselves as judges rather than contestants.

Traumatised coach Ricky WilsonThis isn’t to say that The Voice isn’t great television. It is, it’s just not particularly participatory. Celebrities are by their nature professionally entertaining, and watching them going through agonies is delightful. The structure also means fewer stories about hardship designed to appeal directly to the viewers’ emotions. This man has just spoken movingly about how he’s on the X Factor to try and provide better for his son, and then the boy ran on, for a perfectly packaged tearjerker moment. The Voice is starting to try those moments, but they’re rare.

X Factor fathers and sonsThat type of narrative is integral to the X Factor, which isn’t ashamed that its core is the public caring about, and identifying with, the contestants. Right from the auditions they’re asking their contestants to bare their souls, testing their capacity to carry the public’s empathy. For the X Factor the judges are distant gods who the contestants must submit to judgement by. When the contestants they are mentoring lose it’s annoying for the judges, but much less of a reflection on their own competency. They have plausible deniability – they didn’t directly choose these teams, they were assigned them by unfeeling fate, AKA the producers.

For the Voice, where contestants are always seen as part of their coach’s stable, gaining status via their coach’s regard, those appeals to shared humanity get tacked on at the end. By design, The Voice cares much less that this is your last chance to rise from obscurity, and much more about the quality of your singing.

All this is why getting the number one feels like a design problem. The Voice is an entertaining show, and the contestants are great singers who clearly get good teaching and production, but if they really, really want a number one single, giving the public a sense of ownership in the show would make that easier.

People always suss out when they’re being offered meaningless choices and toothless participation options. It’s really important to remember that each act of participation involves making yourself vulnerable – whether it’s tweeting a joke that perhaps no one will laugh at, or putting forward an opinion which may get shouted down or simply ignored. If you’re looking to make an audience do something, rather than just passively watch, it helps to make sure it’s meaningful, with immediate and real feedback on the importance of their action. That has always been the promise that the X Factor has fulfilled and the Voice hasn’t.

The third series of The Voice has just finished, still available on iPlayer, and it’ll be fascinating to see whether they can come through with a number one for Jermaine Jackman, the series winner.