Before The X Factor made its U.S. debut last September, judge and creator Simon Cowell predicted that 20 million viewers would tune in – and ended up with 12.7 million. "I'm being much, much more cautious this time," he recently told Entertainment Weekly. Caution turned out to be the right tone, as the show's two-hour Season Two Fox debut on Wednesday night drew just 8.5 million viewers, a 32 percent drop from the Season One premiere last fall. Even more humiliating for Cowell: the show's competition, NBC's The Voice, scored 10.7 million viewers on the same night. The NBC strategy of adding a third night this week – Wednesday – to oppose X Factor paid off brilliantly.
The X Factor did everything it could to boost excitement this season, firing unloved judges such as Idol alumna Paula Abdul and ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, and replacing them with two of the world's biggest pop stars in Britney Spears and Demi Lovato. On her first night, Spears received generally decent reviews for being suitably praiseworthy to the good singers and nasty to the incompetent ones. ("I want to know who let you onstage," she sneered at one point.)
The X Factor is not a badly designed show – it has big stars, chemistry among the judges, credibility in the form of veteran Idol judge Cowell and music-business clout via Antonio "L.A." Reid, the record executive who broke stars from Mariah Carey to Justin Bieber. On Thursday, in its second night this season, the show's ratings dropped 3/10 of a point among adults between 18 and 49, but its 3.1 rating was stronger that night than it was on Wednesday against The Voice, according to the The Hollywood Reporter.
But while X Factor fumbled its launch, The Voice established its star power right away when it swooped in last spring. Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, country star Blake Shelton, "Fuck You" singer Cee Lo Green and four red, swiveling chairs won viewers' hearts. It was no coincidence that this all happened during a down period for American Idol. (Idol recently tinkered with another round of judges, replacing Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez with Carey and her reported $18 million salary.)
One theory might be that America has room for just one dominant singing competition in prime time, and the winning show's crucial ingredient is not the performers but the judges. These lineups have to be perfect, like a killer rock band – not just well-known, personable celebrities, but judges who have an ability to play off each other in a funny, amiable way. The original American Idol trio – Randy Jackson, Abdul and Cowell – filled this gap perfectly for years. Once the changes began, starting with Abdul's exit, it was like Judas Priest replacing Rob Halford: even diehard fans ceased caring. Meanwhile, the Levine-Xtina-Blake-Cee Lo band is like the Stones, or maybe the Who, filling the void after the Beatles broke up. The Voice runs long, its winners haven't become stars, and the performances and judges' comments are too repetitive from the first two seasons. But we keep watching because we like the judges.
The only talent show with the ability to take down The Voice may be a reunion of the original Idol panel – Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul. It's a longshot, but if the current X Factor panel doesn't work out and Jackson leaves Idol, could Fox – and Cowell – coax Abdul and Jackson from retirement? There's always next year.