'The Voice' Vs. 'American Idol': How The Talent Competition Shows Stack Up So Far (Analysis)

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Is The Voice a stronger show than American Idol?

That must be at the top of TV industry observers’ minds as the numbers come in for the second season of The Voice. All told, an astonishing 37. 6 million viewers tuned in to the NBC show, nearly double American Idol’s premiere audience ratings of 21.6 million.  Granted, Christina Aguilera and company followed the most watched Super Bowl in history, and its Monday night bow drew 17.7 million viewers -- a significant drop but still on par with Idol’s weekly audience. Still, with talk of a third season of The Voice set to air in the fall (against X Factor), it’s safe to say there is confidence in the air.

With that in mind, does Idol have reason for worry? In a word, yes.

Viewers could argue -- and they have -- that The Voice’s audition process is a refreshing change of pace from what’s become a stale, Idol format. Sure, the big, red Star Trek-like chairs still may feel like a cheesy gimmick, but there’s no denying the authenticity that comes with a singer who’s judged purely on their vocals and not their “package.” Perhaps if more decisions were made this way, there wouldn’t be so much need for auto tuning.

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Audiences also respond to The Voice’s coaches -- Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine -- as they compete against each other every step of the way. X Factor has a similar side contest, but The Voice’s “pick me, choose, me, love me” element as contestants join their respective teams certainly makes for good television and often leads to unscripted insults – precisely what fans of these competition shows are looking for. Who didn’t snicker when Aguilera called Levine a Justin Timberlake wannabe? And how many howled when Levine accused Blake Shelton of namedropping his wife, Miranda Lambert, in an effort to lure contestants over to his side?

Where the talent pool is concerned, it may be stronger than Idol’s, but there’s a caveat: many are auditioning by special invitation, not coming off of open cattle calls in football stadiums. (An NBC rep clarifies that The Voice did hold open calls in venues such as New Jersey's Izod Center and the Navy Pier in Chicago, but unlike American Idol, the auditions were not shown on the broadcast.) There is casting going on, as there was in season 1, and no one is making apologies for it. In fact, many of these singers, as American Idol judge Randy Jackson astutely pointed out, had record deals prior to auditioning for this show.  For instance, Jessica Charlotte Poland, a previous VH1 “You Oughta Know” artist and singer of Charlotte Sometimes (formerly on Geffen Records) will get a second shot at fame in an upcoming blind audition this month. Then again, Idol had similar siuations with former major label-ers like Carly Smithson, a Season 7 contestant.

As for sad stories? The Voice has enough to give Idol a run for its backstory money. Certainly Jamar Rogers, an HIV-positive former meth addict, pulled on America’s heartstrings during the show’s premiere, but Hallie Day, profiled in Idol’s auditions, had an equally gripping tale of drug abuse and attempted suicide. The difference being: Day seems like she needs to win, plus she has the raw talent to back it up.

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That is where American Idol has the goods. With Idol, there is still that feeling of rooting for people that would never have a shot at the music industry. Where was Carrie Underwood prior to her audition? On her family farm singing until the cows came home? Or how about Chris Daughtry? Would he still be selling auto parts if he hadn’t been awarded the coveted golden ticket in season 5? Indeed, Idol is still that wondrous place where dreams can come true, and ordinary people can become superstars.

The Voice, on the other hand, has yet to find a superstar. Where is season 1’s Javier Colon? His single never took off at radio and his one high-profile television appearance was singing for the Christmas Tree Lighting at Rockefeller Center -- alongside season 5 American Idol runner up and arguably much bigger star, Katherine McPhee. She didn’t even win and look at her career -- that’s success. Or how about season 10 Idol winner Scotty McCreery? The country crooner has already sold 1 million albums, sang at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and The World Series.

The one thing The Voice has succeeded at is raising the career profiles of the coaches. The biggest hit from the show? Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” Who appeared at the Super Bowl? That was Shelton singing “God Bless America” and Cee Lo Green in a drum major outfit alongside Madonna (worth noting: Super Bowl XXVI was broadcast on NBC).  But where is Dia Frampton? Or Frenchie Davis, who had a stronger run after getting booted from Idol (before the Hollywood Rounds) when she appeared on Broadway in Rent. And her’s was the name most heavily touted in the commercials. Ultinately, what has The Voice done for her profile? Sheesh, Melanie Amaro just won The X Factor, and her Elton John Pepsi commercial already created more buzz than any of last season’s Voice hopefuls combined.

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And so the question of the day: are the viewers of The Voice invested in the contestants, or which coach wins? Most people on the internet were buzzing about how the coaches “killed” the Prince medley, which is fine and dandy, but let’s be honest: Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez didn’t duet on Idol in a cheap attempt to lure viewers while at the same time screaming, “Look at me!” No, the most singing you hear from Tyler is during the audition rounds when he joins along with would-be contestants. It’s a special moment: a bond, as it were. Think back to Lauren Alaina in season 10 or this year’s unscripted moment with Idol hopeful Erika Van Pelt on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

Which show will ultimately win? The numbers will tell whether American Idol or The Voice resonates. For now, the talent show jury is out.

Twitter: @MicheleAmabile