TV's Sad Song: Ratings Sag as Salaries Explode

Hollywood's "nuclear arms race" for singing stars ramps up amid bitter show rivalries and audience weariness as a Fox exec calls for a salary cap.

How many singing competition shows can viewers handle? Perhaps just one at a time. With The Voice airing in the fall for the first time since it premiered in April 2011 and The X Factor kicking off its sophomore season with Britney Spears and Demi Lovato joining Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid as judges, both shows are suffering ratings erosion. X Factor was down 23 percent (3.3 versus a 4.3 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic) compared with its first week last year, while Voice (excluding a post-Super Bowl episode that drew nearly 38 million viewers) was down 35 percent (4.0 vs. 6.2 rating) compared with its first week in the spring (it jumped 10 percent Sept. 17 but was still down 23 percent compared with the fourth episode of the previous cycle, which aired during mid-winter, when viewership tends to spike).

The downturn, which follows American Idol's lowest-rated season finale in May, comes as the singing shows are writing heftier checks to woo stars. Sources say new Idol headliner Mariah Carey will make about $18 million this season, even as Fox and producers FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment have vowed to trim costs. One source says fellow Idol newbie Nicki Minaj will make about $12 million (though another source says the number is $7 million), with Keith Urban being paid less. Spears reportedly is banking $15 million for X Factor. And a day after Idol confirmed its new judges, THR broke the news that Voice is bringing in Shakira and Usher to replace Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green for its spring cycle. A source says Shakira will make $12 million and Usher $7 million. (NBC and Fox declined comment on salaries.) "These star contracts have turned into Hollywood's version of a nuclear arms race," gripes one network executive.

The dizzying paydays -- Jennifer Lopez made nearly $20 million for her second season on Idol -- come as producers and executives acknowledge a game of musical chairs among talent. "At the moment, it does feel like it's healthy to have some new blood in the shows every year or so," observes Mike Darnell, president of alternative entertainment at Fox. "It just feels like the audience demands switching it up." NBC alternative chief Paul Telegdy agrees, telling THR recently that "a chair on the panel is not a job for life, nor should it be."

That demand is requiring networks to pony up for multimillion-dollar deals with high-maintenance stars. "Arithmetically, what you try to do is stay within a certain budget realm for judges. And how you spread that out is up to you," adds Darnell. "It is going to be important as time goes on for everybody to start capping what they pay judges." Asked where that cap is, Darnell laughs: "I don't know. I hope we've hit it."

To be sure, Voice and X Factor are still drawing impressive ratings at a time when networks have been forced to recalibrate expectations. Despite its dip, Idol remains the gold standard, commanding $575,000 for a 30-second spot last season, according to Kantar Media. X Factor charged $475,000 last fall -- staggering for a first-season show -- but that number could drop. Voice was still relatively cheap last spring at $222,000 for a 30-second ad, though that likely has increased.

Ad buyers have expressed mild concern about X Factor ("not encouraging," says one). But they note it's early. "In this day and age, anything above a 3 rating [in the demo] is really good," says Ethan Heftman, senior vp at Initiative. "Is it unfortunate that the show is lower than it was last year? Absolutely. But it still remains the largest aggregation of eyeballs on a given night at a given time."

What left some scratching their heads was NBC's decision to schedule a special Voice against the Sept. 12 bow of X Factor. The move prompted a mini-tirade from X Factor EP and star Cowell, who said NBC violated a "gentlemen's agreement" with a "mean-spirited" stunt.

Admitting it was a "tactical" move, NBC says it wanted to give the first night of the finale of America's Got Talent (which Cowell executive produces) a fighting chance against the premiere of X Factor. AGT too has suffered ratings declines this season, despite the addition of Howard Stern.

Even with new judges, buyers already are tempering expectations for Idol in January. Says Heftman, "I don't think anyone expects anything gangbusters."