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Updated: 9:42 a.m. Saturday, May 21, 2011 | Posted: 9:41 a.m. Saturday, May 21, 2011

'Idol' wrapping up as 'Voice' and 'X-Factor' threaten to take its buzz

Dale Roe, On TV



The current season of Fox's "American Idol" is drawing to a close. On Wednesday, viewers will choose between Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery, crowning one of them the Season 10 champion.

Is it heresy to wonder how many more "Idols" there will be? A decade is a long time in TV years, and even the most fervent fan would reluctantly admit that the show has moved solidly from unpredictable excitement to routine convention.

The show is still a ratings powerhouse. It's the No. 1 entertainment show among adults 18-49, and this year marked the eighth straight season it's been both the No. 1 program in total viewers and has locked up the No. 1 and 2 spots in adults 18-49. Fox claims that's the longest run since the measurement was first taken more than 20 years ago.

The show's ratings are up over the previous season's for the first time since 2007, but only slightly and probably not as much as the network had hoped for in light of the wholesale changes "Idol" made this season.

Love-to-hate-him judge Simon Cowell quit the show (more about that in a moment); then Ellen DeGeneres followed suit. Kara DioGuardi was the last to go before pop music icons Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler joined holdover Randy Jackson on the judging panel.

The show lowered its audition age to 15, probably hoping to discover a Justin Bieber-like phenomenon. Online voting was added, and the new judges chose a contestant pool decidedly more talented (if ultimately less interesting) than we've seen in recent years.

Yet "Idol" has been consecutively bested by ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," a competing reality show itself a dozen seasons old. And the show's new judging panel — initially met with positive reviews — has already suffered a backlash from fans and critics tired of criticism that is seldom more harsh than "That was beautiful" and "You're in it to win it!" When Randy Jackson is your "mean judge," you're working on a sliding scale. (Speculation is that Lopez and Tyler, as working performers, cannot afford to alienate the music-buying public.)

And dissatisfaction with the show's voting system continues to grow. The early elimination of one of this season's suspected frontrunners, Pia Toscano (along with most of the other female contestants), resurrected complaints that the show's "all you can vote" ethos skews votes from the show's numerous young female viewers toward pretty, male contestants. "Idol" hasn't seen a female champion since Jordin Sparks bested Blake Lewis back in Season 6.

In light of such cracks in the "Idol" veneer, Fox seems to be hedging its bets with the planned introduction of "The X Factor" this fall. The singing competition will have fewer contestant restrictions than "Idol" and will reunite Cowell with former "Idol" judge Paula Abdul as well as Antonio "L.A." Reid and British pop star Cheryl Cole.

Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly touted the show from his perch at last week's upfront presentations in New York City, during which networks reveal their upcoming fall schedules to advertisers. "Others may imitate, but there's only one Simon and one ‘X Factor,' " he said. "We're No. 1 Thursdays and we're looking for that success to continue with ‘X Factor' this fall."

Reilly likely was taking a swipe at "The Voice," NBC's gimmicky but white-hot new entry into the genre, which appeared out of nowhere and stole a good deal of Cowell's "X Factor" thunder.

In lieu of a judging panel, "The Voice" incorporates celebrity "coaches" Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera. The quartet assembled teams, sight unseen, to compete against each other for $100,000 and a recording contract ("The X Factor's" winner will receive $5 million).

Just about the only bright spot in the Peacock network's programming schedule, the show debuted in April with nearly 12 million viewers and was the first new major network series this season to gain eyeballs in its second week. It was mentioned during NBC's upfront presentation 21 times, according to The New York Times. "By the way, thank you, God, for ‘The Voice,' " Bob Greenblatt, the network's chairman of entertainment, said from the stage.

Still, Fox's bravado might be justified — Greenblatt knows viewers will tune in to see Cowell's return and his reunion with the loopy Abdul. Thus, he has opted not to put "The Voice" up against "The X Factor." Instead, NBC will bring "The Voice" back in January, when it hopes it can bang a few more dents into "Idol's" vulnerable armor.

What can Fox do to fend off the attack?

For starters, "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe seems open to considering changes to the show's voting process.

"I am going to be interested in listening to one device, one vote," Lythgoe told pop culture website Zap2It.com. He seemed disappointed, though, that such a radical change would mean "Idol" could no longer tout outrageous voting totals in the tens of millions.

I'd like to see a more radical change in which viewers would vote to send the worst singers home instead of casting ballots for their favorites. The current system has resulted in the lamest competitors remaining in the competition much too far into the season. I know such a change is unlikely; re-educating "Idol" voters would be a monumental task and I can already hear losing contestants claiming that voter confusion worked against them.

In another move to protect "Idol's" ratings crown, Fox plans to debut the show — famous for serving as a lead-in to other high-profile series — with a high-profile lead-in of its own. Season 11 will begin immediately after the NFL's NFC title game on Sunday, Jan. 22 (that's assuming the NFL settles its lockout situation and we actually get to watch pro football this fall). This year's NFC championship drew more than 50 million viewers, Zap2It reported.

If all else fails, Lythgoe could simply decide to shake up the judging panel again. Lopez and Tyler have both expressed willingness to return, but last year's changes weren't announced until August.

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923

'American Idol'

7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Fox

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