"American Idol" judges Steven Tyler, left, Jennifer Lopez… (Danny Moloshok, Associated…)
Something about TV singing shows tends to bring out the worst in human nature: put-downs, feuds and back-stabbing.
But enough about the producers. At least the contestants are usually polite to each other.
When Fox's "American Idol" rolls out its 11th season Wednesday, the No. 1 show will face a newly competitive landscape. "Idol" returns mere weeks after "The X Factor," the spawn of ex-"Idol" judge Simon Cowell, wrapped up its inaugural run on Fox. And NBC will give the second season of its singing contest "The Voice" a huge push with a post-Super Bowl premiere early next month.
The pileup has made for some sharp elbows among the people who put on vocal elimination contests, which have become critical to the American TV business. Every broadcast network is now either reliant on a high-rated singing show, or trying to figure out how to counterprogram against one. And that's not counting NBC's variety-oriented "America's Got Talent" plus dance franchises such as ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
"We kind of invented this whole game that everybody is now copying," Randy Jackson told reporters last week. (The only original judge left on "Idol," he will be joined again this season by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and pop diva Jennifer Lopez.) Jackson added that although "X Factor" managed decent ratings for Cowell, it probably did not deliver on "the expectations he wanted."
In an interview with The Times last month, meanwhile, "X Factor" impresario Cowell looked askance at the kinder, gentler approach favored by "Idol" after he left the show at the end of Season 9.
"To me, they're like 'The Waltons': popular, harmless, a lot of people like it," he said of "Idol." "And maybe we're like 'Dallas,'" referring to the over-the-top 1980s soap of Texas barons behaving badly.
Of course, the larger question isn't which show claims this or that bragging right, but rather how long this particular programming craze will last. Television tends to run in observable cycles, and the fortunes of networks rise and fall on getting in and out at the right time. A decade ago, ABC became the No. 1 network with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," only to fizzle fast when it overplayed the show and the quiz-show boom receded.
"The genre is getting a little cluttered," Brad Adgate, an analyst for New York ad firm Horizon Media, said of singing shows.
Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University, wondered, "At what point do all of these aspiring singing stars start to look and sound the same?"
McCall argued that the popularity of singing shows is a byproduct of difficult economic times. "Shows like this sell a brand of optimism and hope that is really needed when the nation's outlook is bleak," he said. "Audiences live vicariously through these aspiring vocalists wanting to prove themselves. If the economy takes off again, this need for optimism is somewhat diminished."
But for the moment, the singing genre rules TV. And that has made for some fierce behind-the-scenes battles among the folks who create the shows.
Cowell has been engaged in a long-running feud with Simon Fuller, creator of the British series "Pop Idol," which was adapted into "American Idol." Fuller sued Cowell after the latter created the United Kingdom version of "X Factor," which became a hit. The pair eventually arranged a settlement that entailed Fuller's getting an executive producer credit on the British "Factor." But when "Factor" came to the U.S. last year, Fuller sued again. Cowell has this time publicly scoffed at his former friend's demand for credit.
That history helps explain why relations between "Idol" and "Factor" aren't exactly warm, despite airing on the same network.
Cowell says he has a plan to keep "Factor" competitive by changing the show, but he declined to discuss those changes until his rivals have already premiered. "What we're gonna do is different," he promised.
Meanwhile, NBC has had to step carefully with "The Voice," which like "Factor" uses established pop stars in dual roles as judges and mentors. Cowell is the executive producer of "America's Got Talent," the top-rated show that is crucial to NBC's summer prospects, so the network's executives were eager to avoid offending him, giving him a heads-up before they proceeded.
"The Voice" peaked with a solid 14.4 million total viewers last May, but eroded a bit as the show headed toward its late June finale. Paul Telegdy, NBC's president of alternative and late-night programming, said that this time around, in response to viewer feedback, the show will spend more time telling the contestants' stories. The show's performance is especially crucial to NBC because virtually its entire new fall slate got hammered in the ratings.