The X Factor’s 20 million viewers mark it out as more than just a big show for ITV1. The reason for this success? As Simon Cowell might put it, the programme engages one million percent with its audience.

But this extraordinary series of the show has also put X Factor into a place that has belonged, for the last 50 years, to another ITV programme. The X Factor is ITV’s biggest programme, and it has enabled the network to rediscover a programming dominance which, in recent times, seemed no longer to exist for the UK’s biggest commercial network.

According to the overnight BARB numbers for Sunday’s Final show, it had an average of 16 million/51% share. That compares with the 13.4 million/49% share for Thursday’s live Coronation Street, part of the soap’s 50th anniversary programme offering.

While Corrie has enjoyed its birthday celebrations, it is impossible to escape from the conclusion that a programme which has been – since the beginning of the network – ITV1’s biggest programme, has been eclipsed by X Factor.

This is bound to have repercussions in terms of how ITV will behave in future – Coronation Street has always been the benchmark against which all ITV shows are judged. No longer. This changes the centre of gravity for ITV in all sorts of ways.

For instance, Coronation Street has been defined by being engaged in trench warfare with the other big soap entity, BBC1’s EastEnders. For a while X Factor was also defined through its competition with Strictly Come Dancing – did viewers prefer music or dance?

But this series, the BBC has stepped back from over competition with X Factor, which explains to a large extent the record breaking audiences for X Factor.

The show has also redefined the ITV1 schedule, extending the network’s appeal beyond the traditional, Corrie-loving ITV core audience. For X Factor’s Final, 40% of the audience were aged from 4 to 34 years old – for Corrie Live it was 28% (data: Attentional).

ITV would probably argue that the revenue brought in by Coronation Street speaks for itself, so don’t knock it. And I won’t, but I can’t help feeling that the last few days have been a point when something that had been an accepted fact has been changed because a programme which always regards itself as being the heartbeat for the network has been supplanted.

The clue to what has happened can be found in the expensive special effects storyline – the tram crash – which always gives an audience spike.

Sometimes this can have the effect of reviving a moribund soap – I worked with Phil Redmond during the Emmerdale aircrash episodes. But explosions also come from a mindset which requires bigger, more elaborate spectaculars. The soap’s values change.

The X Factor has given ITV a momentum that asks serious questions of competitors, particularly BBC1 under a new controller – ironically he’s inherited BBC1’s decision not to compete with X Factor, which has helped it supercharge its performance this year.

There are those who argue that this is also a back-to-the-future moment, that the glory days of ITV1 are back again thanks to X Factor, Corrie, Celebrity and, new this autumn, Downton Abbey. This argument goes on to stretch the point to suggest TV is under less pressure from new media than had been thought.

I’m not so sure – ITV’s strength also sucks audience away from its competitors, BBC and Channel 4. In the olden days – the 1990s – that was something they could live with, but in the digital age, if one channel scoops the audience, then others will feel the squeeze more dramatically than in the past.

That’s not to argue what ITV has achieved will be a threat to other channels, simply that they too will need to be as innovative as ITV has been in terms of creating television which engages.

Philip Reevell is managing director, City Broadcasting, and blogs about TV at Reevellsratings.

Staff Reporter

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