Divas play musical chairs in primetime sweepstakes

Music for Screens: Summer 2012

The audience fluffers didn’t need to encourage the crowd at the June auditions for “The X Factor” in Oakland. When new judge Britney Spears walked out to the judges’ table, the sound was deafening and iPhones were snapping.


It’s exactly the reaction producers were looking for when they brought in the princess of pop to boost ratings for the sophomore season. Tossing in a little added crackle is up-and-comer Demi Lovato, who shares judging duties with Spears, Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid.


Fox also recruited power singer Mariah Carey as one of two judges filling the spots left vacant by the departure of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler this coming season on “American Idol.”


With the competition to snag viewers for these singing shows at an all-time high, Fox is bringing out the divas to help draw in viewers.


In the wake of NBC’s freshman hit “The Voice,” Christina Aguilera’s profile shot up the charts, proving once again these singing competition shows are key to keeping the stars front and center in the public eye.


And in some cases, prove there’s more to them than just tabloid fodder.


“Clearly, Britney has more curiosity surrounding her than most people on the planet, so that’s already baked in,” says Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “Look, I wish ‘The Voice’ wasn’t on television, but it’s going to make it one of the biggest showdowns in television. We’ve got Britney and Simon and if we get anything in the One Direction phenomenon, we’re going to do fine.”


Last season, 12.4 million viewers tuned in to “The X Factor” finale, easily beating the 11 million that watched NBC’s “The Voice” closer. Cowell and company still hope to snag “Idol” Death Star numbers in their coming season.


Even that ratings behemoth has shown signs of viewer fatigue. The addition of Lopez and Tyler last season marked a slight rebound in ratings. But the 2012 numbers dropped significantly, particularly in viewers 18-49 where an average episode went from 10.8 to 7.5.


The addition of Carey could prove to be the jump-start the aging show needs. Cowell, who touts Spears’ ability to get tough, says judging might not be Carey’s strength.


“I think she’s going to find it difficult to say no. You’ve got to say no to people,” Cowell says. “She’s sweet.”


But can she bring the viewers back?


Boston Globe pop music critic Sarah Rodman says Carey brings “Idol” something it never really had: the experience of a talented, commercial vocalist.


“Some viewers may not care for her style, but she is without a doubt technically gifted in ways that previous judges like Paula Abdul and Jennifer Lopez certainly aren’t,” Rodman says. “Whether that translates into higher ratings beyond a curiosity bump remains to be seen.”


As for Spears and Lovato, the pairing clearly is designed to appeal to both women and more ad-friendly viewers.


“Fox is hoping to lure a younger demographic to the show, and a youthful energy as they spar with elders Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid,” Rodman says. “They represent the link between the show and the audience it hopes to get. Certainly some teenage and twentysomething female viewers will more readily relate to Spears and Lovato than middle-aged record executives.”


There’s an easy jump to assuming Spears is doing this to boost her own career, a claim she denies.


“I’ve done eight tours and been in the music industry a while and I just really feel like being able to be on a show where you can give back and help people achieve their dream is just really interesting to me,” Spears says. “(Increased album sales is) not my intention. It’s purely just on the fact that I love the show.”


If she comes across as sympathetic on “X Factor,” she may also be able to spiff up her public image, which has taken a beating in the past few years.


Despite that, she stays strong as a commercial artist. Spears scored several hits from her past two albums, “Circus” and “Femme Fatale,” both debuting at No. 1 and going platinum.


“Christina may have always had more talent but Britney has the unwavering, protective fan base,” Rodman says. “Britney has always been in a different league, sales-wise, from Aguilera, whose last album flopped and hasn’t had a bona fide hit in over five years. She got a profile boost from ‘The Voice’ but has yet to reap any significant quantifiable rewards in terms of album or ticket sales.”


Spears may not have to revive her career, but she could use a little image polishing that could come from “Idol.”


“I was fascinated by her as a person and as a pop star,” Cowell says. “There’s something intriguing about her, so (on the show) you see another side of her and she’s a really, really good judge.”


Lovato, Cowell adds, not only brings a feisty presence to the panel, but also lowers the panel demographic.


“Because the show has such a young audience, it needed someone a bit younger,” Cowell says. “She’s a brat. But there’s something really likeable about her as well.”


And she certainly sits smack in the middle of the target demo.


“The expertise I’m able to contribute is I’m listening to the radio right now and I know what my friends like,” Lovato says.


And Fox is pinning its ratings hopes that what they like are Spears, Lovato and Carey.



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