17 November 2009

Polybius and the X-Factor

Unlike sixteen-and-a-half million other people in the UK, I missed the X-Factor on Sunday, and thus didn't see Jamie Archer being decreed the weakest link, as it were. Still, I was intrigued to hear that yet again the judges had failed to save anyone, and had left it to the people to decide. It's curious that unlike last week there's been no outcry about leaving this decision to the public.

There seems some confusion in X-Factor over where power lies, as was demonstrated in the recent squabble between Louis Walsh and Dermot O'Leary over who the programme's judges are; are they the formal judges, as Louis cried, or are they the voting viewers, as Dermot countered?

Leaving aside what the X-Factor is for -- making money for ITV and for SYCOtv, and, to a lesser extent, giving youngsters a shot at some sort of fame, I can't help but think that the game is more than a little fuzzy, with the rules being unclear and the participants' roles being muddled.

I think some Classical shtuff might help here.

An Ancient Greek Political Primer
Polybius, the second century BC Greek historian of Rome's rise to Mediterranean supremacy, attributes Rome's ultimate victory over Hannibal's Carthage in the Second Punic War to the strength of Rome's political and military systems. The genius of the Roman constitution, he believed, was that it was a mixed constitution, containing elements of the three main constitutional types, all of which, in their pure forms, were liable to become corrupted. As he saw it, Rome was somewhat democratic in that ultimate power in Rome lay with the people, whose popular assemblies made laws and elected magistrates. However, the legislative agenda was effectively shaped by the the state's aristocratic element, the Senate, an assembly of former magistrates whose role was theoretically advisory and who were responsible for Rome's foreign policy. The two most important magistrates were the Consuls, elected on an annual basis and, like monarchs, commanding the armies in the field. The Roman state, as he saw it, was a healthy mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and thus was unlikely to deteriorate into tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule.

I know, I've oversimplified, and ultimately it all went wrong anyway, but that's the gist of his thesis. Now what's this got to do with the X-Factor?

Lloyd Webber and the Mixed Constitution
Well, take a look at the set of West End Selection shows: How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do, and I'd Do Anything*. They all follow a similar format, which Polybius would regard as being almost perfectly balanced, and the framers of the American Constitution would probably agree.

Once the shortlist of finalists is drawn up by the expert panel, the final decisive stage in the process begins. Every week the finalists perform, and the expert panel express their opinions on them. Following their advice, the public cast their votes. When the public votes are in, the two least popular finalists have to perform again, and this time it's for Andrew Lloyd Webber to decide which one he has to save.

You can surely see how this rhymes with the Roman constitution, can't you? The aristocrats give their advice, the people pass judgement, and then the monarch has an opportunity to pardon one of the condemned. In the grand final, of course, the monarch has no such power, and it becomes a simple process of the experts advising and the people choosing.

Cowell and the Mixed-Up Constitution
X-Factor doesn't come close to this. The 'judges' - the experts in the X-Factor - have a stake in individual contestants, for starters, so their advice is hardly neutral: they don't necessarily have a stake in the best candidate winning; they have a stake in their candidate winning. Not merely does this generate the possibility of bias in their advice, it also generates bias in how they vote when each week's popular stragglers are revealed. What's more, there being an even number of judges means that the judges' decision is often a tie, making the popular choice final, and it's very easy for the final voting judge to choose to go for a popular decision if he or she thinks that will suit him or her than an expert decision. Don't forget too that one of the judges basically owns the show, and thus has interests and implicit powers that are very different from the others.

Leaving aside how the whole system lacks transparency through the voting figures beging kept secret from the voters and -- reportedly -- the judges,** you can surely see the problem here. Powers are anything but separate, and conflicts of interest are rife. Getting upset about it, as with the 3,000 people who complained because Simon Cowell allowed the public to decide on the whole Jedward issue the other week, is pointless. It's only a game, after all, and it's a game that's structurally unfair. Bias is built into it.

If it bothers you, don't watch it. You don't have to, after all. Three quarters of the British population skipped in on Sunday.
* Which was brilliant, purely because it had Barry Humphries in it.
** Though given that Simon Cowell basically owns the show, you might be forgiven for wondering...


Tom said...

It worked better when there were three judges rather than four. Except when Sharon Osbourne threw a hissy fit and refused to participate in the vote-off (this happened at least three times). Still, it used to work out at about one deadlock per season - this year it's been five out of six times (and the only time it wasn't was when there were, guess what, three judges on the panel!). At least this week's deadlock was because the two judges genuinely chose who they wanted to send off and it happened to differ, rather than simply deferring their responsibility. Anyway, I look forward to seeing Dannii and Simon vote Lloyd off against Jedward at the weekend (which should be the last of the judge-decided showdowns).

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Yes, I think there being three judges makes far more sense, though of course it doesn't alleviate the problems of partial advice and Simon's double agenda.

I'd not be so sure of next week's final two, though. I agree, Lloyd should go, but without access to the figures I don't think we can predict how this things will fall. I'd love to see Jon Snow with a chart, so we can see the core votes for each act, swings based on particular performances, distributions of transfers after acts are knocked out, and the affects of new voters in any given week.

Tom said...

Well last year for the first time, they released the weekly vote percentages at the end of the contest. (Wikipedia also has it, laid out differently, in a more useful format, but here's the bare numbers:)
So hopefully they'll do the same again this year.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Interesting. And you're right, the format on Wikipedia is more useful.

Unfortunately, the percentages alone don't even come close to telling the full story. What happens when a contestant is knocked out? Do their supporters transfer to someone else, and if so, who? Or do they stop voting? Do more people vote in the last episode than in earlier ones? If so, are these multiple votes or new votes? If the latter, are these any way predictable?

Oh for the actual numbers.