Tuned In

The Morning After: American Idol Vs. The Voice

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Michael Becker / FOX

Jessica Sanchez performs, Wednesday, May 2.

This is the first year in a while I haven’t been doing weekly writeups of the American Idol performance shows, pretty opportune timing for me because the show has reached a level of padding I thought impossible even for it, the better to keep airing two-hour episodes. (Seriously, what is with the embiggening of reality TV these days? Is there really so much story in every reality-competition show that the episodes need to be the length of a feature film?) But I have kept watching, despite my increasing conviction that the Muppet-ish Dave Matthews impersonator Phillip Phillips is going to run away with the whole thing.

I’ve also been watching The Voice for comparison, to see whether NBC‘s hot singing show had anything Idol could learn from. But a curious thing has happened this season: while at one point The Voice looked primed to surpass Idol as America’s favorite sing-off, its ratings have been dropping week by week as it goes along. (Idol is off vs. last season too, but still leads The Voice overall.)

There could be any number of factors: the mix of contestants, for instance, or the fact that The Voice has to roll a boulder uphill because of the mere fact that it’s on NBC. (Update: There’s also, as a reader noted on Twitter, the fact that The Voice is scheduled against Dancing With the Stars, as well as the puzzling but universal phenomenon that people have apparently stopped watching TV en masse, at least as Nielsen measures it.) But from the revolving chair that I sit in, there’s another reason: Idol, as familiar and even staid as it might be now, is designed to get more compelling as the competition goes along—whereas The Voice, if anything, is designed to get less so.

One reason I think that The Voice does so well in early comparisons (and early ratings) against Idol is that it’s exciting from the get-go. Idol is like a cruise ship; it takes months just to build speed and momentum, and it’s audition weeks can feel endless. The Voice, which kicks off as a contest among not just the singers but among its well-chosen judging panel, is exciting from the beginning.

It’s not just about the chairs—the gimmick that Fox is now copying with its celebrity dating show The Choice—but yeah, it is kind of about the chairs. There’s a continual tension, not just about whether a particular singer will get picked, but over which judge will build the best team, and the interplay among the panel is more entertaining lately than Idol’s (except for the occasional out-of-the-blue weirdness from Steven Tyler). The Voice has been much more current in its music choices, whereas Idol (see last night’s ’60s and Brit-pop themes) is much more devoted to the concept of “your favorite songs of yesterday, sung by the young people of today!” The Voice’s “battle” rounds are a good innovation too; where Idol slogs through a long middle section where you get to know each contestant, the battles add plenty of stakes, with pairs squaring off against elimination.

But I think there’s a cost to the way The Voice is structured too. It’s like a NCAA bracket, with singers competing to survive first in pairs, then in small groups. Which is fine—except that, unlike in Idol, it’s only very late in the competition that everyone competes against everyone.

Idol’s elimination process is much simpler (except for the “judges’ save” twist), but that has an advantage: once you get to the finals, everyone is competing on the same plane, compared against everyone else. For some reason, I think this makes it easier to follow each singer’s thread and get invested in them. Idol may be aging and determinedly corny—the set-design this season has been hilariously kitschy and literal, as exemplified last night by Phillip singing “The Letter” in front of a video backdrop of a bunch of letters.

But for all that, Idol still does a better job of introducing its contestants as characters, people whose names and tics you remember. The Voice may actually have the more talented group of contestants overall this season, and yet it’s now May and I don’t really know them or feel invested in the competition, whereas on Idol, I feel I have a fuller sense of the strengths and weaknesses of even the singers I’d never download a single from.

Then again, that applies to most of the contestants on American Idol, and for that matter The Voice, so I may not be the best judge of the show’s relative appeal. If you’re watching both shows, you tell me: what does each do better than the other? We’ll have your answers—after the break.