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'The Voice' vs. 'The X Factor'

6/12/2014 Ken Barnes

By Ken Barnes
Special to MSN TV

After nearly toppling "American Idol" in the early stages of the ratings battle earlier this year, before fading, "The Voice" has made a speedy turnaround to battle FOX's other music competition, "The X Factor," this fall. (Although it may turn out to be a cannibalistic disaster, "The Voice" is going head-to-head against "X Factor" at least once, during the shows' premiere week. "Voice" episodes start Monday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. ET/PT and also go on to Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT. "X Factor" bows that very same hour Wednesday on FOX, and continues Thursday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)

Bing: More about 'The Voice' | 'The X Factor'

On paper, "The Voice" has a sizable advantage, having averaged greater than 3 million viewers more than "X Factor" last season -- about the same margin by which "Idol" beat "The Voice."

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But "X Factor" seized hold of the buzz factor early in 2012 by firing its two female judges, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger (the latter has salvaged a judging gig on the show's U.K. version), and hapless host Steve Jones. A public courtship of Britney Spears (eventually hired along with ex-Disney star Demi Lovato to replace Abdul and Scherzinger), followed by breathless reports on how the volatile paparazzi magnet was faring during auditions, kept "X Factor" atop the gossip cycle -- at least until "Idol" upped the ante by (presumably) parting ways with all three of its judges, hiring ultimate diva Mariah Carey and stirring the pot with endless speculation over the other, still unnamed, replacements.

You could have easily forgotten all about "The Voice," with its stable cast of coaches and host. Although four new mentors, or assistant coaches, were named -- Mary J. Blige for Adam Levine, Michael Buble for Blake Shelton, Rob Thomas for Cee Lo Green, and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong for Christina Aguilera, none of whom seem like natural fits -- most of the show's changes were procedural.

After the blind auditions -- TV's most exciting, thanks to the inspired "spinning chairs" gimmick -- each coach will begin with 16 singers. Battle-round duets will reduce the rosters to eight apiece ... but there's a twist. Each coach can "steal" two battle-round losers, adding them to his or her own team. (The spinning chairs will be involved in this process. There's no gimmick too inspired to run into the ground.) Each team of 10 will then be cut down to five via a new "knockout round," which is a head-to-head competition between two teammates, not (thankfully) a forced duet, which has turned out to be a poor way to assess talent. (The steal idea, which acknowledges that strong singers are unfairly eliminated in the forced-duet context of the battle rounds, tries to put a bandage on this problem.) The final five weeks should chop the teams down as before until one singer from each team remains.

"X Factor" has announced a few non-personnel changes of its own, involving the four categories into which it assigns its teams. This season, singers will compete as individuals 12-16 (aka the kiddies), individuals 17-24 (the core group), individuals 25-plus (the oldsters, starting five years younger than last year's "over-30s"), and groups (or losers, judging from last season's dismal results). Otherwise, you'll still see the auditions, directly modeled on "Idol"'s good-or-excruciatingly-bad format, though possibly qualitatively better this year thanks to new rules permitting singers already signed to management and agency contracts. One other wrinkle: The auditions will be host-less, since (despite endless bandyings of actors and reality-show types) that position has not yet been filled.

Then, after audition winners are chosen and assigned to categories (some groups will likely be assembled from close-call individual auditioners), we'll endure the boot camps of the rich-and-famous phase, in which the judges train and choose their teams at their far-flung, opulent homes, followed by the final week-by-week eliminations, also modeled on "Idol"'s.

But let's not kid ourselves: New viewers are not going to tune in because the age limits have shifted. They'll be curious about Britney.

Of course, it was a ridiculous idea. Having Britney Spears -- a vocalist of limited range, even more limited expressiveness and a widely reported penchant for lip-syncing her way through live shows -- judging singing ability is as absurd as ... um, having Paula Abdul do it. OK, so the precedent's been set and nobody seems to care all that much. But in the case of Britney, who seems to walk around in a daze much of the time and is barely intelligible in some of her interviews, even having her talk on-air seems preposterous.

But as I said, people will be curious. And they love train wrecks. Not that they'll see any for the first several weeks, because everything up to the actual eliminations is taped. Which means the producers can control how Britney comes off.

There's good reason for watching just to see which approach they take, however. Will they try to make her sound intelligent, cherry-picking carefully staged instances of snappy exchanges with Simon and sympathetic-yet-perceptive verdicts on auditioners? Or will they depict her on the brink of a flare-up, hinting that the possibility of a future meltdown is there? Or just let her natural vacuity hang out?

My bet's on a combo platter of all three, with an emphasis on No. 1 and No. 2 (No. 3 is bound to show up no matter how much video manipulation they do). That means several weeks of extended tease -- which is, after all, the theme of Britney's career -- before we get to the live shows, where anything actually could happen (at least on the East Coast broadcast).

The big question for "X Factor" and FOX is whether enough of those new, curiosity-driven viewers will stick around that long. That's why hitting the right tantalizing note with the initial Britney framing is so crucial. The Simon Cowell-devoted fan base and the contest junkies will be watching no matter what, but to attain the ratings heights of "Idol" or even "The Voice," "X Factor" needs to win the Britney gamble. Which leaves the other new judge, Lovato, deep in the shadows. Compared to Britney as a singer, Lovato may be, well, Mariah Carey -- but compared to Britney, the average seagull is Mariah Carey. On a larger scale, Lovato is an average-at-best singer. As a judge, she will need to display undiscovered wit and insight to make an impact. The returning L.A. Reid last year showed a welcome willingness to disagree with Cowell, if not a commensurate smackdown ability. That knack, in all of music-based reality TV, remains in Simon's sole possession.

Simon Cowell, as smug and preening as he can be at times, is still the best reason to watch "X Factor." He does the wittily dismissive Brit better than anyone, to the regrettable point that nobody else even tries anymore. That includes the coaches on "The Voice," who obviously won't be harsh on their own team members, and out of some code of politeness (regarding which Simon skipped the memo) are always kind to other performers as well. Which is sweet, but much less entertaining.

The humor on "The Voice," then, has to come from the sniping at other coaches, which Shelton does with a warm and ready wit, Levine does abrasively, Aguilera does in a queenly fashion that implies the rest of the panel isn't fit to carry her scepter, and Cee Lo doesn't really do at all, preferring to speak in parables and meanderings that don't always convey clear meaning but are usually entertaining.

Here's how the two shows stack up in other areas.

Auditions:

Because "The Voice" uses fewer auditioners and screens them for ability, its musical quality will be much stronger in this phase. "X Factor" will still insist on showing us some really bad auditions, if only to give Britney & Co. something to react to and Simon raw material to sharpen his claws. But bad auditions become tedious pretty quickly. And, come on, spinning chairs. Advantage: "The Voice."

Midsection:

Both shows tend toward flabbiness between their initial (audition) phases and the point at which live competition and eliminations begin. "The Voice" seems to have taken some corrective steps, what with the steals and the promised expanded role for the spinning chairs, but the forced-duet battle rounds still don't serve the singers well and have outlived their usefulness. On the other hand, "The X Factor" will waste a ton of time showing off one of Simon's estates and whatever grossly conspicuous displays of wealth and privilege they plant the other judges in. Not to mention pointless footage of the judges coaching their teams. (And does anybody really care whose team wins? Ultimately, it's about individual winners.) Advantage: neither.

Finals:

Although both shows carry the team format into the live competition shows that climax the season, they become less important on "The X Factor," which follows the "Idol" template by eliminating one act each week. "The Voice" eliminates singers by team, and it's just not quite as gripping. Advantage: "The X Factor."

Music:

Last season, "The Voice" clearly distinguished itself from "Idol" by choosing measurably more current songs for contestants to perform, taking on an enviably more contemporary image. "The X Factor" seemed to skew a bit older in its first season. That may change, but Cowell is attached to his old warhorse songs ("Hallelujah," "Feeling Good" and so forth). And "The X Factor"'s oldster category will likely lean to more venerable songs as well. Presumed advantage: "The Voice."

Hosts and other irrelevancies:

Carson Daly is an amiable presenter and seems at ease with his panel of coaches. It would be nice if he'd cut out the hackneyed "surprise the contestant at work" bit, which is better saved for makeover shows. The social-media and backstage sequences hosted by Christina Milian were a massive waste of time last season. "The X Factor" didn't get into that area to any annoying degree, but it had a truly clueless host, which it plans to replace with two, one of each gender. That's a recipe for disaster (too many hosts spoil the froth), so presumed advantage: "The Voice."

Overall singing quality:

Once the auditions are over, this should even up fairly fast. Both shows scored well in finding good singers, but "The Voice" had a disturbing tendency toward eliminating promising vocalists too early in badly chosen battle-round match-ups. "X Factor"'s older-singer category added a welcome dimension of experience, and on the other end, with a lower age limit than either "Voice" or "Idol," it turned up its share of appealing prodigies. (It also led to at least three meltdowns -- Astro's display of petulance and shell-shocked, shattered-dream sobbing spectacles from Rachel Crow and Drew Ryniewicz -- that made for painful viewing.) Advantage: toss-up.

Train-wreck potential:

At some point on "The Voice," Christina Aguilera's waspishness and reported off-camera excesses, or even Adam Levine's tendency toward obnoxiousness, might spark a memorable reality-TV catastrophic moment. But so far everyone's done a good job at keeping the lid on. Meanwhile, given her robotic concert appearances, disastrous TV interviews, and numerous off-camera eccentricities, Britney Spears' potential for disaster is off the charts. Advantage: "The X Factor."

Final recommendations: Watch "The Voice" for interesting music, good singers and occasionally entertaining banter. Watch "The X Factor" for good singers, a more suspenseful countdown to victory, those inimitably acidic Cowell comments and the chance to see some truly embarrassing television.

"The Voice" premieres Monday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. "The X Factor" premieres Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.

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