Next weekend millions of viewers will tune in to ITV to find out who has won this year's X Factor. That the show has been a huge ratings winner for the beleaguered channel is already a foregone conclusion; the commercial success of the victor, though, is less assured.
The X Factor format is based on the promise of superstardom and a lucrative recording contract for the winner. But with past victors such as Steve Brookstein, who won the first series, failing to achieve lasting chart success, can the show maintain its credibility and position as ITV's cash cow?
Even Gareth Gates - who was runner-up in the first series of The X Factor's predecessor, Pop Idol, in 2002 - arguably experienced more commercial success than either Michelle McManus, who won the second series, or Brookstein. Notably Gates secured a lucrative six-figure deal with Pepsi.
Peter Ruppert, founder and president of Entertainment Media Research and former head of music information at MTV Europe, says brands are becoming less willing to partner with reality TV show winners, pointing to the growing level of cynicism over the sustainability of their profile. 'Brands have learned that the success of many winners is throwaway. History shows there is no longevity for many of them, so brands don't want the association,' he says.
Duncan Bird, vice-president of futures at Sony BMG, argues that short-lived stardom is simply the nature of the music industry. 'Many artists who are hyped as the next big thing don't come to anything. The public doesn't expect artists to be around forever and this process can be accelerated in talent-show formats.' Bird predicts a bright future, both in terms of sales and brand partnerships, for last year's X Factor winner Shayne Ward, who is signed to Sony BMG.
While the success of artists such as Will Young and US Pop Idol winner Kelly Clarkson show the potential for talented individuals to supersede the 'reality-show winner' label, sometimes artists don't connect with the market in the long run, Bird admits. 'It really depends on the individual - when people have voted for a winner, they feel like they have invested in their future success, so (the artist has) a solid starting point.'
The inevitable focus on Brookstein's failure also belies the success of the first series' runners-up, vocal group G4. Dominic Burns, vice-president of licensing at FremantleMedia, says the fact that a number of other contestants have topped the charts - from Chico the former goat herder to ex-bin man Andy Abrahams - shows the strength of the format. 'There is a fantastic array of talent attached to the show and it is the most developed in the genre,' he says.
Regardless of the career longevity of this series' winner, the success of The X Factor as a TV format is not doubted by media agencies. Chris Hayward, head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, believes the success or otherwise of the winners is beside the point: the show is great entertainment. 'The X Factor is a valuable TV commodity, but in terms of credibility, I don't think the contestants have ever really had any,' he says.
During this series, fierce scheduling from the BBC - which put Strictly Come Dancing up against The X Factor once again (ITV subsequently reorganised its schedule) - has had an impact. 'The BBC was blatantly targeting ITV's audience with the scheduling. It's disgraceful and it inhibits the potential audience for The X Factor,' says Hayward.
Despite the scheduling, viewing figures for the latest series have been robust, averaging 7.4m - a 34% share of the total audience, with 47% of available 16- to 34-year-olds. According to ITV, The X Factor has been second only to the World Cup in terms of viewing among 16- to 34-year-olds this year.
Darran Lucas, TV director at Initiative, says that in the context of ITV's problems reaching the key 16- to 24-year-old age group, The X Factor is more than welcome in the schedule. 'The makers have done a good job of refreshing the show and it sits well in ITV's heartland of family viewing,' he says.
However, he adds that credibility could become an issue going forward. 'With the exception of Will Young, the stars of these shows have had limited success. It is the same with Big Brother: there is a real danger of overkill with the amount of reality programming in the schedules,' he says.
Nevertheless, unlike other reality shows, The X Factor is not dependent on its contestants for its success - particularly in its current format, which places a greater emphasis on the audition process. 'The show naturally refreshes itself with new talent, although we have also bought in new elements,' says Burns. 'But fundamentally, the programme is still about the emotional journey of the contestants.'
Hannah Perry, news editor of Heat magazine, agrees that the quality of the talent or success of the eventual winner does not dictate the show's success. 'Last year there was a clear winner from the start in Shayne and this year there hasn't been that kind of standout. But you have three great judges and a format that creates great drama and TV,' she says.
While it is inevitable that there will be a dip in interest in the winner once the series finishes, the success of Will Young and Kelly Clarkson prove the reality/talent show format can still deliver both audience figures and bankable stars.
DATA FILE - PREVIOUS WINNERS - WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Shayne Ward, who won last year's contest, had the third fastest-selling non-charity single in British chart history with debut single That's My Goal, selling 732,000 copies in three days. Ward has been out of the UK chart spotlight over the summer to focus on overseas markets but his management are promising a 'huge comeback'.
Steve Brookstein released one single - fittingly, a cover of Phil Collins' Against All Odds - and an album before being dropped by Sony BMG after eight months. He then founded his own label and released an album, 40,000 Things. His first single from the album failed to make it into the top 40. In October, only 120 tickets were sold for his show at Worthing Assembly Hall, Sussex.
Michelle McManus, who won Pop Idol in 2003, had a number one single with All This Time; her debut album, The Meaning of Love, reached number three. In 2005 she parted company with management company 19 Entertainment and is now arguably best known for shedding almost half her body weight after appearing on Channel 4's You Are What You Eat.
Will Young catapulted to fame in 2002, winning the inaugural Pop Idol series. His debut single was the fastest-selling in UK chart history, selling 403,027 copies on its first day of release and eventually shifting 1.7m copies. Young, who has won two Brit awards and released his third album last year, is considered the most successful artist to have emerged from a UK reality show.