Not so long ago, the annual arrival of American Idol on the primetime schedule sent executives at ABC, CBS and NBC running for cover. The ratings dominance of Fox's singing competition crushed all comers and earned it the TV-industry moniker "Death Star."
This year, the execs have come out from under their desks. Idol is no longer the most watched primetime show — in recent weeks, thanks to NBC's The Voice, it hasn't even ranked as the most watched singing show. "The Death Star is now more like a water gun," says one former NBC executive.
Through April 7, Season 12 of Idol is averaging 15.7 million total viewers for Wednesday's performance shows, a drop of 20 percent compared with the same time last year. Thursday's results shows average 15.1 million viewers, off 22 percent. In addition, Idol has lost 23 percent of viewers age 18-49, the group advertisers covet most. Since The Voice began its fourth cycle on March 25, it has ranked higher than Idol in both categories every week and, with an average of 13.5 million viewers, is up 8 percent over the same period last fall. (Idol has averaged 12.1 million viewers in those weeks.) It's now certain that Idol won't finish the season as the highest rated entertainment program — for the first time since 2004.
Fans debate the appeal and ability of new judges Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Mariah Carey, as well as the quality of contestants, but Fox executives and their competitors believe the age of the show and the rise of The Voice have hastened the end of Idol's juggernaut. By resisting the temptation over the years to run more than one cycle per season, Fox preserved the event-like anticipation of its premiere. But The Voice and Fox's own The X Factor have pushed viewers' appetite for the genre to the limit. "The time commitment of two nights each for Idol and The Voice has to be a factor," says Brad Adgate, a senior vice president at ad-buying firm Horizon Media. "And even Idol gets tired after 12 years."
Fox executives declined to comment on the record but privately acknowledge that they knew the day was coming when the show would go from dominant to merely formidable. But judge Randy Jackson says when it comes to building a legacy, The Voice has some catching up to do. "See where they are at 12; you tell me what's going on," he says. "How many seasons did Seinfeld last? How many seasons did Friends last? Whoa!"