Will 'The Voice' Out-Sing 'American Idol'?

American Idol The Voice - H 2013

American Idol The Voice - H 2013

Plummeting ratings for the former champ leave an opening for the NBC show.

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

American Idol is stuck in 2002. The show's inaugural summer run is the most recent time it drew only 12 million viewers on a performance night. Season 12's top-10 reveal March 7 registered a slight uptick to a 3.6 rating in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic and 13.1 million total viewers. But the March 25 launch of NBC's The Voice, which during its second cycle in spring 2012 was only two-tenths of a point behind Idol's current Wednesday average (5.0 for Idol, 4.8 for Voice), presents the possibility that America's highest-rated singing show could lose bragging rights and the millions of dollars that come with them. Are Fox execs and Idol producers nervous?

"I genuinely don't care," insists Idol executive producer Ken Warwick. "I would possibly care if they come up with a star at the end of [their season] that's bigger than the star I produce. But so far there's been nobody, so I'm quite happy."

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Indeed, Idol's most recent grad, season 11's Phillip Phillips, has sold more than 4 million tracks of his coronation song "Home," according to Nielsen SoundScan, and his debut album for Interscope has moved 737,000 units to date. To compare, the only Voice winner to release a full-length album was season one's Javier Colon, who since has been dropped from Universal's Republic label. Cassadee Pope, the show's most recent victor, is working on her debut.

But while Idol might still be the music king, there's little doubt its TV monarchy is being threatened. On March 7, Idol was bested by CBS' The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men in 18-to-49 ratings. And even though Voice and Idol air on opposite nights, should the newcomer (whose most recent run averaged 13.9 million viewers) unseat the veteran (averaging 16.1 million so far in season 12), you can bet Idol brass will be singing a different tune.

"Compared to The Voice, Idol's numbers hold up," says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "Idol is still a force. It's just in comparing it to season five -- when it averaged 30 million viewers, and now it averages about half that -- it gives the impression that it's not a strong show." Idol still commands an average of $340,825 for a 30-second spot, higher than the $239,866 Voice charges, according to Ad Age. But Idol spots are down from $502,900 last season and likely will dip again.

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Idol insiders have been working to lower ratings expectations all season, citing untested judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban. Fox has shortened the schedule to end a week earlier in May and skip audience-voted semifinals and go straight to a top 10, and it has made slight tweaks to the format: a supervote, which allows viewers to allocate as many as 50 votes to one contestant, and a modified reveal, lifted from Idol in Sweden, where host Ryan Seacrest tells the finalist his or her fate before he tells the studio audience.

"You can freshen it, but you have to be careful," says Trish Kinane, president of entertainment at Idol production company FremantleMedia. "I've seen these formats all over the world, and if you do anything too drastic, which isn't in keeping with the editorial essence, then you can ruin it." To that end, Minaj's no-nonsense opinions probably have brought the most attention (and younger viewers) to the veteran show. "Three of this year's judges look like mannequins staring absently at the same old songs we've heard many times before, wishing they were elsewhere. The exception is Nicki Minaj, who has become the only reason to watch the show," says Stephen Winzenburg, a communications professor at Grand View University in Iowa. Fox confirms that the median age of an Idol viewer is 47, the same as that for Voice's most recent season and two years younger than last year's average. "People were absolutely resistant to Nicki in the beginning, but I think they've been won over," says Kinane.

So far in 2013, Idol ranks highest in social media engagement, with total social activity increasing 116 percent this year versus last, according to Fox. By comparison, Voice's most recent season drew 44 percent fewer social comments than Idol already has generated not even halfway through its season. Adgate notes that Voice also faces uncertainty this cycle with Shakira and Usher replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo Green as coaches: "Who knows what impact a second incarnation of The Voice will have?"

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Still, Idol's best days likely are behind it, and veteran judge Randy Jackson blames a crowded market. "You turn on the TV, and somebody's singing on some channel," he says. "I equate it to food: You go to dinner, get to the table, you're the only one there, and there's a lot of food going around. By the time 12 years have gone by, your table is packed. It's hard just to get a seat."