'The Voice' comes within calling distance of 'American Idol'

2:59 PM, Feb 16, 2012   |    comments
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Monday's episode drew 16.3 million viewers, just 13 percent shy of last week's Idol average, and matched those Idol episodes among ages 18 to 49 while beating it among the younger half of that group. A big help: NBC's season opener Feb. 5 enjoyed a record-setting Super Bowl lead-in, which delivered nearly 38 million viewers to the show.

"There's nothing like that huge volume of eyeballs to get a chance to sample something," says executive producer Mark Burnett. "I think we were really, really lucky."

So is slumping NBC, which with precious few exceptions has been bereft of hits. Aside from Sunday Night Football, The Voice is now the most successful and important show on the network and has surpassed CBS' once-dominant Monday comedy block in the ratings. Though NBC resisted the temptation last fall, The Voice will sing again come September, airing two annual cycles just as many top reality shows do.

"It's a game changer for them," says Sam Armando, senior VP at Chicago ad firm SMGx. And it doesn't hurt that its roster of mentor/judges -Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton- are all active performers from different genres. "It's newer and fresher" than Idol, he says, "and there's a little bit more relevance with that cast."

The Voice also has an early-round gimmick: It recruits contestants, rather than hosting open auditions, but has them perform for judges whose spinning seats are turned away to avoid the influence of singers' appearances.

"What resonates with the audience is (the) disparity between how someone looks and how they sound," says Paul Telegdy, who oversees NBC's reality and late-night programming.

"The blind auditions tell the people, 'You will be judged on the merit of what you do in this field, not what you look like,' " Burnett says. "There's no background story. There's no comedy behind it." Instead, coaches are asking, "Can you sing? Do I believe you have a real voice and would I like you on my team?" he says. Then, "the power shifts to those unknown singers, who get to question our coaches: 'Why should I join your team? What can you do for me?' People in authority are being questioned by the rookies. I think that's a beautiful thing."

And Telegdy believes viewers respond to the "dysfunctional family sitcom" that describes the coaches' competitive banter, which other shows have had varying success in mastering. "Winning this thing is quite important. They're rivals, and it bubbles over."

Richard Rushfield, a former Los Angeles Times editor who wrote a book about Idol, says The Voice has a leg up: "They have a team of judges that could not feel more contemporary and in the moment and curious.

"I think the whole tone of it is more playful and low-key, kind of an antidote to the giant spectacle (of) Idol," he says. "The first rounds are a very clever way to create drama," and in contrast to Fox's packed-stadium auditioners, "a more modest human scale for people suffering from singing-contest overload."

This season, Levine says, "our connection as a group has gotten stronger. At the beginning, we all kind of felt like deer in the headlights a bit, because we weren't sure what we were supposed to do. We kind of jumped in without knowing how to deal with the television beast." Now, "we've gotten a little bit quicker and more comfortable, more willing to reach and show our cards a bit more, inject a little more personality."

'Idol' magic is elusive

Since Idol premiered in 2002 and rearranged TV's pecking order, other wannabe singing shows have reached for their share of fairy dust but fell short.

CBS revived Star Search in 2003, and aired two seasons of Rock Star (produced by Burnett) starting in 2005. In 2006, ABC tried The One, which lasted a week. Cable has a country-music flavored series; NBC gamely has touted The Sing Off and Clash of the Choirs, while coming closest with a broader summer variety show, America's Got Talent.

Even Idol star Simon Cowell couldn't match up with The X Factor last fall. But inevitably, something has to outpace Idol. "Does The Voice have the potential? I think so," Armando says.

Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe isn't surprised: "We've now got two major programs in The Voice and X Factor against us. Whether people like them or dislike them, they're feeding (off) the same talent, and it's still going to dilute our audience."

No one is crying (yet) for Idol, despite declines of nearly 20 percent this season and an aging viewership. (The average Idol viewer is 47, up three years from last season, while The Voice's is 43.)

Analysts say the narrowing gap is in part a function of freshness. The Voice is an ingenue early in its second season, while Idol is a reality dowager. Even Telegdy concedes Idol is "still a really strong format in the 11th year of the show; these declines are completely natural." And so far, Idol has done a better job of manufacturing stars, while The Voice has been a bigger boon to its judges' careers.

Last year's winner, Javier Colon, has been touring but has not made much of a dent in the music business. Three former Idol contestants -Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson- performed at Sunday's Grammys, and two of four Voice judges were on stage.

"Javier's career since the show has been difficult," Levine says. "I think reality has set in that that moment in time has passed. [He] ... has talent to become massive. But he's got to plug away like I know he's willing to do and make it happen."

Room for all singing shows

After two more weeks of auditions, The Voice moves to its pretaped "battle round" on March 5, when coaches pit their finalists (12 apiece, up from 8 last season) against each other in pairs to winnow the field.

In response to social media feedback, viewers will see more mentoring: The coaches are aided by the likes of Clarkson, Ne-Yo, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert. Live shows begin April 2, and a Tuesday results show will be added.

Burnett says there's room for all, and Nielsen data agrees: About 32 percent of The Voice viewers also watch Idol.

"You look at Holland, where The Voice was created and first aired, there's Idol, Holland's Got Talent, another pop star show and The Voice, and all of them did well," he says. "Singing shows are fun. Every viewer has their own opinion. We all know whether we think a voice sounds good or not. There's a play-along element. All these shows can be supported."

What will support NBC most is if the large Voice audience proves receptive to other of the network's offerings. So far, that has not been the case with Monday musical companion Smash, which has declined steeply. "The true test is what it does for the network," Armando says. "I don't think it's the goal to have one (hit) one night a week."

Says Telegdy: "NBC has more nights to rebuild than most. [But it's] about one brick at a time."

Join 9NEWS Entertainment Reporter Kirk Montgomery in our "Your voice on 'The Voice' chat" during every show.

(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)

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