People kept waiting for American Idol to be dethroned as the biggest reality competition show. They didn’t know it would be by basically the same show with a different title. The Voice, NBC’s very similar singing show, is consistently beating Idol in the only demographic TV advertisers care about: viewers aged 18 to 49. If that’s not humiliating enough for the once-mighty Idol, some of its recent episodes have been beaten by Duck Dynasty and a Big Bang Theory rerun. Former Access Hollywood host Tony Potts dismisses Idol as “Toast. It has run its course.” Or, as Voice judge Adam Levine told Hollywood Outbreak, “That’s an institution. It’s been around forever”—the ultimate backhanded compliment to Idol.
Even better for The Voice, it’s been able to surpass Idol without becoming totally dependent on its stars. The current season, which will air its finale on June 18, launched with recording artists Shakira and Usher replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green as judges who coach the auditioning singers (the original judges will return next season). But the replacement had no negative effect on the ratings, proving that any judge can easily be replaced. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast with American Idol, where original judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul were the true stars; Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University, says Idol has been “trending down” ever since Cowell and Abdul were replaced by “a series of what the audience still considers to be fill-in judges.”
What is it about The Voice that has made it more appealing than the franchise it imitated? It might be, oddly enough, that Voice judges are less popular. John Moser, music writer for the newspaper The Morning Call, says Idol is “no longer at all about music. It’s about personalities, and the celebrity of the judges.” On The Voice, the emphasis is on the songs: “The judges don’t have to carry the show as much,” McCall says. “And that is probably a good thing.” Less backstage gossip and conflict between judges, it turns out, leaves more room for music.
By emphasizing the young singers, The Voice has one thing Idol has never been known for: warmth. Singer Erick Macek, who appeared on The Voice and once auditioned for American Idol, says The Voice puts more emphasis on the backstories of contestants, and what makes The Voice engaging is “the rawness of the show,” in contrast to Idol, which “seemed very polished.”
McCall adds that the format of The Voice, where the judges lead teams and have a vested interest in helping singers, makes it “a warmer show generally.” It may be part of a trend on the part of the show’s producer, Mark Burnett, who has moved from the cynicism of his previous hits, such as The Apprentice, to more feel-good entertainment, such as his hit scripted miniseries, The Bible. The Voice could be just another example of how audiences now respond to sweetness and light, rather than sourness.
The success of The Voice has helped Burnett reinvent himself, though it may not be enough to change the balance of power in American TV. NBC has been unable to launch hits to capitalize on The Voice’s success; its new reality show, Ready for Love, was cancelled quickly due to terrible ratings. Idol fans have also pointed out that competition shows’ ratings always go down after a few rounds, and The Voice looks better because it started its season later. Some TV insiders argue that, by the end of the season, The Voice’s ratings could go down far enough to make Idol look less bad than it does now.
But whatever the final ratings turn out to be, there may be an unshakable perception that The Voice has taken over as the show for what McCall calls “viewers who were getting ‘Idol fatigue.’ ” Not only will its high 18-to-49 ratings allow it to command more ad money than Idol, but its easily replaceable judges may allow it to operate more efficiently in this cost-conscious era. And above all, The Voice may be proving the rule that audiences gravitate toward the show with more likable characters. “At the end of day, I feel like I could have a beer and hang with any of these judges,” Potts says. “Can’t say that for Idol.”