Smart scheduling, tough challengers for "American Idol," and even an oddity in the way Nielsen ratings are recorded have helped make NBC's "The Voice" the top-rated series of the season so far.
But you won't catch NBC, the fourth-place network, publicly bragging about "The Voice" beating "American Idol" in the ratings — especially not so early in their seasons, when so much can change. Fox's veteran "Idol" has spent a stunning eight years as the top-rated network in the advertiser coveted 18-49 demographic. And it could still rebound to win this season as well.
Also read: "American Idol" Down But Tops a Slow Night
"Idol" also holds big financial advantages over its upstart competitor: Thanks to its near-decade of dominance, it can charge more than twice what "The Voice" does for a 30-second ad. "Idol" also typically airs two new episodes a week, compared to one for "The Voice." That means twice as many twice-as-expensive ads.
Still, "The Voice" ratings lead — for however long it lasts — is a huge morale booster for NBC as new entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt tries to lead it past ABC to third place. (Fox leads the networks in ratings in the demo, and CBS in total viewers.)
The singing competition's second season ratings growth reminds at least one observer of "American Idol's" second season.
"It just to me points out this is a real contender," said Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate. "It's not like the show has plateaued in year two. It's increased. It's always a good sign for a TV show when the ratings improve in the second season compared to the first."
It remains to be seen whether the midseason hit — which debuted in April 2011 and returned for a second season this month — can fare as well when it moves to the fall for season three, as TheWrap has previously reported it will do.
It also remains to be seen whether NBC can use the success of "The Voice" to launch other hits. So far, the musical drama that follows it, "Smash," has earned only decent ratings while losing much of its powerful lead-in.
"The Voice" owes much of its success to a plum post-Super Bowl timeslot for its season-two premiere on Feb. 5. But the show is still faring well against the aging "Idol" even with that episode factored out.
The Super Bowl episode and the three episodes that have aired on the Monday nights since have averaged a 7.7 rating/19 share in the demo and 19.8 million total viewers. Without the Super Bowl episode, "The Voice" has averaged a 6.2/16 and 16.7 million total viewers.
Since its season 11 premiere in January, "Idol" has averaged a 6.1/17 and 18.8 million total viewers. That includes an average 6.5 rating/17 share in the demo and 19.9 million viewers overall for Wednesday episodes, a 5.4/15 and 17.4 million for Thursday episodes, and one Sunday episode that aired in January.
Because "The Voice" doesn't air directly against "Idol," it can't claim to have ever beaten the more established show in a direct matchup. The older show now competes against two thriving comedies — ABC's "Modern Family" on Wednesdays and CBS's "Big Bang Theory" on Thursdays — which have cut into its ratings and helped "The Voice" earn its recent advantage.
Not that "The Voice" has had easy competition — it has won three consecutive Mondays for NBC against a CBS lineup including "Two and a Half Men" and "2 Broke Girls" that looked bulletproof in the fall.
One draw for "The Voice"? It's newer. As buzz about it grows, more viewers check it out for the first time. This was never more true than after the Super Bowl.
Also read: 'Idol' Ratings Fall; Are Viewers X-Hausted?
"American Idol" doesn't have the same shiny quality. But it has proven, over 11 seasons, that it has staying power, and that reliability means a lot to advertisers.
"The Voice" pulls in $206,500 for each 30-second ad, compared to $503,000 for the Wednesday "Idol" and $468,000 for the Thursday edition, according to AdAge's annual survey of primetime advertising costs.
"American Idol" and NBC's "Sunday Night Football" — which averages $512,000 per ad — are the most expensive shows for advertisers. If "The Voice" numbers hold up, look for its ad rates to climb as well.
By piggybacking "The Voice" second-season premiere on the Super Bowl, NBC also benefited from a Nielsen oddity.
Networks are generally required to count a show as a "special" when it airs after the Super Bowl rather than count its ratings toward its overall seasonal average. But when a show has not aired earlier in the season in a different time slot — as was the case with "The Voice" premiere — its ratings are counted toward its overall average.
The singing competition's success is something few imagined in December 2010 when NBC announced that it would premiere a new show tentatively titled "The Voice of America" the following spring. That meant the competition show would leapfrog Fox's long-planned "X Factor," which had been in the works for years and was slated for fall.
"The Voice" became the biggest hit of the 2010-11 season when it premiered in April. "X Factor," while successful, earned roughly half the ratings "American Idol" does, and may have contributed to viewer exhaustion with singing contests. Viewers who ordinarily would have waited through the fall for the midseason premiere of "Idol" instead satisfied their singing jones with "X Factor."
When making its 2010 "Voice" announcement, NBC noted that the Dutch show on which "The Voice" was based, "The Voice of Holland," had surpassed the Dutch versions of “The X Factor” and “American Idol” as the top talent competition show in the Netherlands.
As if that could ever happen here.