"American Idol" shed a quarter of its ratings between its last season premiere and its return Wednesday, and "X Factor" may be a viewer-exhausting factor in the drop-off.
"Idol" scored a 7.4 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, a 24 percent decrease, and 21.9 million total viewers, a 17 percent drop. If it can maintain those numbers for the season, it should easily remain television's top show. (Only top-rated sitcom "Two and a Half Men" debuted bigger than "Idol" this season, before falling to less stratospheric ratings.)
It makes sense that "Idol" would be down this season. Last year, many tuned in to see how new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez would fare; with the panel stable this time, there's no similar curiosity factor. The show is also aging, entering its 11th season, and its ratings are especially impressive for a show so old.
But the falling numbers may have less to do with "Idol" than with "X Factor."
The show created by former "Idol" judge Simon Cowell, which follows a nearly identical format to "Idol," wrapped its season just weeks ago -- so viewers thirsting for a glitzy musical competition haven't had to wait months. NBC's hit series "The Voice," meanwhile, overlapped with "Idol" last season, further glutting the music show market.
Viewers may just be "X-hausted from all the competitions.
If any finger pointing ensues from the "Idol" slip, some will be at "X Factor" for stealing its antecedent's thunder. The two Fox shows have a friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalry.
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Cowell said last summer that he hoped "X Factor" would top "Idol" as the biggest show on television. (It hasn't -- it earned less than half the ratings for "Idol.")
And last week, at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, "Idol" judge Randy Jackson said Cowell's new show had copied the "Idol" format -- but wished it well anyway.
The jousting isn't just verbal: When Cowell introduced the original, British "X Factor" in 2004, "Idol" creator Simon Fuller filed a lawsuit accusing Cowell of ripping off his format.
Fuller filed another suit in July, saying Fox and Fremantle made a deal with him in 2005 in which he agreed to drop the first suit in exchange for an executive producer credit and fees on the American version of "X Factor." That suit continues.
Maybe the two sides can settle it by having "X Factor" kick back any ratings it sapped from "Idol." (We'll leave that metaphysical dillemma to the lawyers.)
The music show calendar will get even more crowded next month, when "The Voice" begins its second season with a premiere episode after the Super Bowl. "Idol" has dismissed the upstart outright, and mocked it for bringing on former "Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson as one of its new mentors.
"We're not hiring a lot of people from 'The Voice' to be on our show," Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell said last week.