It's time to play “American Idol” by the numbers: Television’s longtime No. 1 show is set to begin its 11th season Wednesday, following an eight-month absence. In some respects, though, this feels more like Season 2, marking the sophomore outing of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez behind the judge’s table after the subtraction, over the years, of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi.
But more importantly, this could be the first season in which Fox’s “Idol” faces a major challenge with Season 2 of last year’s surprise NBC hit “The Voice” just a chair whirl away. That all adds up to one question: Can two popular singing contest shows targeting a similar audience both pull big numbers?
Last year marked a comeback of sorts for “Idol,” with Lopez’ nurturing earth-mom persona and Tyler’s benign spaceman spouting about the indefinable "what-it-is-ness" of gifted contestants lending a kinder gloss to a program than denigrated into decidedly unentertaining sniping during Cowell’s final season. The bolstered mentoring process, led by music producer Jimmy Iovine, put the primary focus back on the talent, reaping the best crop of recent years.
“The Voice,” which debuted a month before fans declared Scotty McCreery the latest “Idol” winner, spun quickly out of the gate, also aided by an emphasis on mentoring, via judges – Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton – who displayed a winning, banter-stirred chemistry.
The gap between the finales for both shows has been filled, in part, by expected hype – including chatter over whether this will be “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest’s last season. While “Idol” is getting a two week-plus jump on the season start, NBC is heavily promoting its plan to premiere “The Voice” on Feb. 5, after the Super Bowl.
The most important off-season game, though, may have played out on Cowell’s new U.S. version of “The X Factor,” which did okay in the ratings this past fall, but performed far lower than the showman’s lofty predictions of "Idol"-like success. Whether that’s a sign his popularity is declining, of format issues or that the formula he helped create doesn’t wield the old magic anymore, may be one thing learned from the “Idol”-“Voice” sing-off.
Both shows must prove they’re beyond the novelty phase – in the case of “Idol,” big-name new judges, and for “The Voice,” the drama-inducing chair-turning gimmick that literally put a new spin on the singing contest genre. Even more crucial is culling strong contestants from a talent pool that might be diluted by the competing shows.
But whether there will be enough “what-it-ness” between outspoken judges and belters bent on superstardom to attract millions to two shows during one season adds up to a new level of competition in which the audience's voice will resound loudest and longest of all.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.