Competition heats up as ‘American Idol’ returns for an 11th season

Los Angeles: ‘American Idol’ returns on Wednesday for an 11th season, facing a new wolf at the door as it tries to retain its place as the No. 1 U.S. TV program -- not so much age, but competition.

Rejuvenated by a judging panel makeover and the discovery of its biggest star in years in country singer Scotty McCreery, the Fox talent show last season saw a four percent increase in audience, reversing a trend that had seen viewership slip.

But that was before NBC launched its surprise 2011 summer hit "The Voice" and Simon Cowell brought his "The X Factor" to Fox in September with outsize hype but underwhelming critical reviews. Each show attracted about half the average 25.2 million viewers who watched "American Idol" in 2011.

Brian Mansfield, who covers "American Idol" for USA Today, said the contest faces more competition this year than ever.

"You are a month away from the end of `X Factor` and a month away from the beginning of `The Voice`. And so you do wonder if, even though `X Factor` was not as big a success as Simon Cowell had anticipated, if it managed to cannibalize viewers from `Idol.` And I think that is the big question going in," Mansfield said.

"Idol`s twice-a-week, five month search for a new singing star won`t be going to head to head with "The Voice," which makes its second season premiere after the 2012 Superbowl on February 5 before settling in to a regular Monday night slot. This year, "Idol" will air on Wednesday and Thursday.

Yet, that means reality singing contest fans will face three nights a week of auditions, performances and exits if they want to keep up with both shows.

Fox says it is not overly concerned about the competition, calling "American Idol" the "gold standard" of TV singing contests which has produced bona-fide stars like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson.

"We`ve had several waves of competitors over the last 10 years, and this show (`Idol`) has stood up extraordinarily tall," Fox reality programming chief Mike Darnell told TV reporters last week.

Bureau Report

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