Despite signs that "American Idol" may finally be showing its age, Fox's hit singing competition program has been able to stave off a strong challenge from NBC's "The Voice," at least for now. When both shows stumbled in popularity during the week of April 29, "Idol" edged ahead of its younger foe in the overall season ratings, taking a 6.2-to-6.1 lead. Both shows started out the season strong but have faded down the stretch as summer looms. But, while "The Voice" made big strides over its first season, at least early on, "American Idol" has lagged behind its previous incarnations in the ratings all year. The lingering questions, then, are why have both series waned in popularity as their seasons play out, and can "Idol" maintain its top position going forward? There are no easy answers, but we can make some guesses.
Both of these shows have flaws in their current formulas. For its part, "Idol" has changed very little in basic format over 11 seasons of success, and it may be that it's all starting to blur for the show's fan base. Despite new judges and some minor gimmicky tweaks, what we saw a decade ago is what we're seeing this May, and it's frankly growing tired. "The Voice," on the other hand, hits us smack in the face with outstanding vocals from the get-go, and the concept of having judges choose contestants blindly, based solely on singing ability, is still very fresh. All too quickly, though, "The Voice," reverts to a popularity contest, factoring in singers' ability to dance and play to the audience amid pyrotechnics, men on flying trapezes and any number of other non-auditory devices. Add in the fact that many of the contenders are professional musicians, and the show loses much of its potential distinction.
Of course, its also possible that we're finally starting to experience reality fatigue. After more than 10 years of watching folks who might be our neighbors do things that seem at least somewhat extraordinary, the vicarious thrill of idled voyeurism might be wearing thin. The people who grew up with reality television have moved on to other phases of life, and the new generations may not feel the same sense of discovery and ownership that those who were there at the beginning.
As to whether "American Idol" can stem the tide of sliding ratings indefinitely, it seems unlikely. The overall universe of entertainment choices continues to expand, and any one show stands to grab less of the audience as time progresses. "Idol" may be able to stay on top of the network ratings for awhile longer, but even that feat will likely require another, more radical makeover.