New X Factor: most watched show of night but viewer level slips

Olatunji Yearwood appears on X Factor’s 15th series
Olatunji Yearwood appears on X Factor’s 15th series. Photograph: Dymond/Thames/Syco/Rex/Shutterstock

A refreshed X Factor returned to the UK’s television screens with a new lineup of judges but the same tears and sob stories and a fall in its viewing figures.

An average of 5.7 million viewers watched the first episode of the 15th series of the ITV show on Saturday night. The equivalent episode last year was watched by an average of 6m.

The show was not even up against Strictly Come Dancing, which starts next weekend. BBC One on Saturday scheduled celebrity editions of its quiz shows Impossible and Pointless.

Although the launch figures were down on last year, the show was still the most watched programme on TV across all channels and had a 34% audience share, ITV said.

This year’s X Factor has the same feel as previous years but with a number of significant changes. The biggest is the clearing out of the long-time judges Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and Nicole Sherzinger, replaced with One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, and the married couple Robbie Williams and Ayda Field.

Arena auditions with huge, baying, crowds also returned in place of the cricket ground conference rooms of last year.

What has not changed are the heightened emotions. Danny Tetley, aged 37, from Bradford, broke down in tears after judges were bowled over by his rendition of And I Am Telling You. An important moment, he said, given he was rejected from Pop Idol by Cowell 17 years ago.

Williams was close to tears as he thanked Janice Robinson, a 50-year-old American singer who, it quickly emerged, had written the 1995 club classic Dreamer. Hearing her perform brought back memories of messy times in his life, he said.

There was also no change in the sometimes baffling comments of the judges. “You are not just the X Factor, you are every single letter in the alphabet factor,” Field told Robinson.

Cowell said he wanted this year’s X Factor to be more open-minded although there was no place on Saturday for an act called Livia and the Elementals, a singer and five dancers who cheerlessly waved brightly coloured cloth around.

“In my opinion, I don’t want to be rude, it was probably the most unenthusiastic performance I’ve ever seen,” said Cowell. It was a “a bit like Cirque de no way for me,” said Williams.

Producers are hoping the new judges will inject freshness into a format that, for some, has been flagging for a number of years. In its glory years, 17.7 million people watched the 2010 final when Matt Cardle won. Even its biggest fans struggle to remember who won last year’s series when the figures for one episode plummeted to 4.8m.

At last month’s Edinburgh TV festival, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s head of studios, defended the programme, calling it “an incredibly important show for us”.

He added: “X Factor, more than any other show, it’s been running a long time, ratings have been going down a bit, but it’s still ... the idea that you could launch a new show today that is as big as X Factor is now, I mean, our job is to keep it young, keep it good, keep it fresh.”

Last year’s winner was the Watford boy band Rak-Su.

Tomlinson was in tears in Sunday’s programme after a performance of Avicii’s Wake Me Up by Liverpool labourer Anthony Russell.

Russell pulled out of last year’s series for personal reasons, going in to rehab, and was helped by the One Direction star who was moved by his story. “I don’t think I’ve seen someone do a first audition with a black eye, you stole my heart straight away,” he said. “I really got to know you over the past year, and your family, and I think you’re a lovely, lovely guy.”