The networks may be killing the singing golden goose. After a decade of smacking down every competitor in its sight, American Idol isn't the only game in town anymore — and even Fox admits that the addition of rival hits The X Factor and The Voice has hurt the mother ship.
Primetime is now jampacked with these shows, and this fall the singing genre threatens to overshadow the networks' new scripted series. NBC is expected to quickly turn around another edition of The Voice in time for September — further consuming the airwaves with its breakout hit. At the same time, Simon Cowell plans to make more noise by adding a few superstars to the X Factor judges' table (the latest speculation includes Pink and Janet Jackson). And heading into next season, NBC's America's Got Talent will shake things up this summer with the addition of new judge Howard Stern, leading some to speculate that Talent may eventually move into the regular TV season as well.
"With each show, we're all dividing the marketplace," warns FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, whose company is a producer on both Idol and The X Factor. "No one is going to commit to all the shows, so people are going to choose their favorite. Maybe hardcore fans will watch a couple of them. I don't think it's a zero-sum game, and the marketplace has probably expanded a little bit. But no one is reaching the numbers that Idol was reaching five years ago."
Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming, says he saw this day coming: "[That] all these shows are on the air now is having the effect we knew it would. There's some fatigue." Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe recently told reporters, "We've now got two major programs in The Voice and X Factor against us. Whether people like them or dislike them, they're still feeding from the same talent, and it's going to dilute our audience."
Idol is down around 19 percent versus last year at this time. But the incumbent singing-show champ continues to pack a punch and is starting to see its audience tick back up. "It's still a huge TV show," Frot-Coutaz says. "It's not like the sky is falling. It's just not quite as big as it used to be. You have to readjust to a new landscape... Much lower-rated shows are called hits. Sometimes I think the lens through which these things are analyzed is not fair."
Frot-Coutaz admits that the decision not to make any major changes to Idol this season (after last year's game-changing additions of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler) may have hurt the show in the face of its shiny new competitors. "It was a great show last year and we came back with something similar, and we suffered from that, probably," she says, but adds, "changing things for the sake of changing things is something you don't want to do."
The decision to overhaul The X Factor comes out of a desire to better differentiate it from Idol. "The ambition is to grow the show [and] one of the issues was it wasn't distinctive enough. We looked at viewer feedback and that's why we made the changes that we made," says Frot-Coutaz. "I don't think people want two shows that look the same. People who fell in love with it wanted to see something different than American Idol... My role is to make sure that the two shows don't run into each other, which can be tricky in a world where ultimately they're both singing competitions."
Frot-Coutaz says that Paula Abdul was removed specifically because her interaction with Simon Cowell was too reminiscent of their Idol days. "There was no way around it," Frot-Coutaz adds. "In terms of making the show feel different, everyone felt we needed to put it in a different situation."
The X Factor was actually a decent performer for Fox, but the show suffered from high expectations — in part because of Cowell's infamous prediction of 20 million viewers (which was never reached) and the network's hefty marketing campaign. "We all drank the Kool-Aid," Frot-Coutaz says. "In the U.K. it was the only show in the marketplace and had a 69 share. We kind of forgot that things are different here. The expectations were not realistic. We were all guilty of it." Still, observers also took the ratings as a sign that viewers who want to watch a singing show may have already been satiated.
With Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger gone, X Factor is following Idol and The Voice's lead in pursuing superstar talent. "You can have fun with big names," Darnell says. Cowell and Fox have already drawn up a wish list of new judges — and according to insiders, deals are expected to be finalized within the next few weeks, long before they begin shooting in May. Cowell recently confirmed that Whitney Houston might have been on the list but hadn't been approached before her untimely death.
As for The X Factor hosting gig, Frot-Coutaz says Cowell is eager to replace former emcee Steve Jones with a male-female hosting duo. "Simon's vision was always to have a man and woman host this and to make it feel a little bit like an award ceremony — a glamorous girl and a good-looking guy doing a kind of double act," she says.
Retooling X Factor was already a high priority at Fox, but the stakes are event higher now that The Voice will likely move to the fall. "You have to rethink things even more than we were a few weeks ago," Cowell recently told the TV show Extra. "Now it's war."
Rivals wonder if viewers might tire of the game show-like quality of The Voice's blind audition rounds, particularly if the show airs twice next year. (Competitors cite ABC's quick burnout of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as a cautionary tale.) But the signature spinning-chair format is what helped make it a hit, and The Voice has returned with a roar in Season 2, turning judges Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine into even bigger stars. Thanks to its showcase behind the Super Bowl, "new fans have seen how much fun it is," says executive producer Mark Burnett.
Burnett says he saw no need to make any major changes with The Voice. "Tweaks are interesting, changes aren't," he says. "The Voice works. It's a good format, it's good family fun entertainment."
As for this spring's Idol vs. The Voice showdown, Darnell and Frot-Coutaz bristle at the comparison. "It's a totally different show," Frot-Coutaz says of The Voice. "It's more about giving a second chance to people who have already had careers in the business (whereas) Idol is a rags to riches story. I'm not criticizing them, I'm glad they're doing it differently because I don't want them to do what we do."
But as things get a bit heated, the various shows' producers and judges can't help but take a few competitive swings. Idol's status as the dominant incumbent hasn't stopped the folks on that show from swatting down their rivals: Idol's Randy Jackson took The Voice to task for casting their show with a lot of experienced contestants who bypass open calls. ("People want to have a career and be on our show," Burnett responds. "That's the premise. The only people who come to the blind auditions are people who can actually sing and are good.")
And when Cowell suggested on Twitter that the three shows' winners face off in an ultimate singing Super Bowl, Lythgoe shot back with one of Idol's key selling points: that it's the only show that has churned out superstars like Carrie Underwood. "The problem is the Idol winner will be a star by then," he quipped.
Burnett plays down any animosity between the shows, however: "Randy is my friend, Darnell is my friend, Simon's been to my house for dinner," he says. "I know all these people. We're all friendly competitive and it's all good."
Meanwhile, despite the flooded marketplace, others are still looking to get into the race. Several networks are currently kicking the tires on a variety of singing show formats. But "it's very late to get in," warns Darnell. "The landscape is full. I think the audience has made their selection."
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