NBC’s The Voice got the buzz and the magazine covers this season, but American Idol has ended its eleventh season with one big victory: It remains, far and away, TV’s most watched talent competition series. Yes, last night’s finale was down dramatically from last season, and yes, the year-to-year ratings declines for Idol this season are both real and spectacular. And yet, per Fox projections based on preliminary Nielsen data, the combined performance and results shows for Idol still averaged 19.2 million viewers this season. That’s a whopping 30 percent better than the (still impressive) 14.8 million average audience for The Voice.
Things are more competitive between Idol and Voice among adults under 50, the demo group NBC and Fox both concede determines the biggest chunk of advertiser spending. In this metric, Idol figures to end the season with a 6.0 rating versus a 5.7 for Voice, a 5 percent advantage for the Fox show. This number, along with the total viewer figure above, carries a couple of caveats. First, Fox is projecting final ratings for the last few weeks of Idol, since Nielsen won’t be done tallying DVR data for a few more weeks (any viewing that takes place within seven days of a show’s initial broadcast counts toward its official rating). And, by taking advantage of a Nielsen loophole, NBC is able to count the massive ratings for the post–Super Bowl premiere of The Voice in its average. Remove that single episode and Idol is suddenly 11 percent ahead of Voice in demos and 36 percent better in overall viewers. (Fox’s averages include an episode of Idol that aired on Sunday, following a football playoff game, but the boost was nowhere near as big as the Super Bowl edition of Voice.)
Of course, if you want to get really, really picky, you could also just look at how Idol and Voice did with their performance episodes. This is how NBC prefers to break things down, because … well, because it makes the race between Idol and Voice closer. If you only look at those episodes, Idol and Voice appear to be tied with viewers under 50, each averaging a 6.2 rating. But: Once DVR data comes in for Idol, there’s a good chance Idol will inch up to a 6.3, thus beating Voice even in this narrower metric. And, if you remove the Super Bowl edition of Voice, there is no race: NBC’s show slips down to around a 5.7 rating. Argh! Might we suggest Xtina and J. Lo simply meet up somewhere for a crazy-face-making competition and let that settle the whole thing? It would be easier. It really would be.
As for last night’s 127-minute finale (actually 28 minutes, minus commercials, product placement, and Jennifer Holliday mugging), it averaged an estimated 21.5 million viewers and a 6.3 rating with adult viewers under 50. This is down 32 percent from last year (in the demo), but not sharply out of line with the 2010 finale, seen by 24.2 million. As of right now, Wednesday’s finale looks to be the least watched in Idol history, lower even than 2002’s first summer finale, seen by 22.8 million. However, DVRs weren’t a big factor in the ratings ten years ago, and it’s a good bet Idol will add significant audience once delayed viewership is factored in. No amount of spin can hide the fact that, in ratings at least, this was a transitional (read: bad) year for Idol, the season when the once immortal became flesh. But after a very rocky start, the show did stabilize pretty quickly and even started generating positive buzz owing to some truly great contestants. And, finally, give Fox and Idol credit: It’s taken a full decade (and the combination of Voice and The X Factor) for Idol to fall back to where it began, a pretty impressive feat in an era of audience erosion and DVRs. Now, if only Simon Cowell would give up on his murder-suicide pact by abandoning X Factor and returning to Idol.