In Depth

How Loudly Will 'The Voice' Carry Come Spring? Ad Buyers Don't Think NBC Bright Spot Is the Next 'Idol'

By Brian Steinberg
Advertising Age

Does "The Voice" carry as far as NBC thinks it does?

By many indicators, the answer is "yes." For this season to date, as of June 26, Nielsen says NBC's still-fledgling music contest ranks fifth in attracting viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, the audience demographic most coveted by advertisers. That's nothing to sneeze at, particularly because the only programs trumping "The Voice's" youthful call are two nights of Fox's "American Idol" along with NBC's Sunday-night football coverage and the pre-game show leading up to it. More people overall may watch "NCIS" and "The Mentalist" over the course of a TV season, but "The Voice" -- whose season finale airs this evening -- is clearly sounding a sweet note to the consumers advertisers want to reach.

And yet, for all its success in its freshman season, the show's ability to reach a higher volume next season remains a matter for debate. Ad buyers surveyed by Advertising Age predict household commercial ratings for "The Voice" next year that in some cases may fall about 50% below similar shows.

Buyers project that Fox's "American Idol" will have an average household commercial rating of 10.51 on Wednesdays and 9.64 on Thursdays, for example, while they think ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" will notch an average household commercial rating of 11.5 on Mondays and 9.88 on Tuesdays. At present, a single ratings point equals about 1.15 million households.

Even "The X Factor," also on Fox, is expected to do well even though it has yet to debut on air and buyers have no previous U.S. ratings information on which to base their assumptions (though "X Factor" has a well-established track record overseas). "X Factor" is expected to notch an average household commercial rating of 10.22 on Wednesdays and 9.64 on Thursdays.

When it comes to "The Voice," however, buyers are projecting an average household commercial rating of 5.23.

The ratings measure known in the industry as "C3" counts the number of viewers who actually watch commercial breaks during a selected program, rather than changing channels or fast-forwarding past them with a digital video recorder, whether they watch live or as many as three days later. Advertisers have crafted transactions based on C3 ratings, rather than traditional ratings for programs themselves, since the start of the 2007-2008 TV season.

For NBC, getting "The Voice" heard is crucial. The network has had a tough slog on the programming track about since the demise of "Friends" and "Frasier." Keeping "The Voice" roaring would help NBC reduce its heavy dependence on Sunday-night football broadcasts, a ratings juggernaut that has been imperiled by the labor dispute going on between the National Football League and players. NBC is also seeing its long-running "Law & Order" franchise taper off. Christopher Meloni, a veteran star of "Law & Order: SVU," the only "Law & Order" series still on the air, has left the program, and his co-star, Mariska Hargitay, will not appear in every episode next season.

If "The Voice" is successful, it could spark a renewal of viewer interest in NBC programing. The network has reason for hope with "Harry's Law," which season to date as of June 26 had more viewers overall than ABC's "Modern Family" and CBS's "Hawaii Five 0." Sunday night's "The Apprentice" is seen as boosting the network's commercial ratings next season. And some of NBC's new shows, including a Thursday-night remake of Britain's "Prime Suspect," have sparked some buzz among ad buyers.

NBC clearly sees an opportunity. It will air a special hour-long episode of "The Voice" after its broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI, which is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2012. And NBC cluttered up the bottom of the TV screen during its programming in the weeks before the show launched, running bright-red promos over first-run episodes of many of its programs to make sure viewers knew the series was ready to go.

Advertisers, however, may be waiting to see whether the momentum "The Voice" is enjoying is disrupted by "The X Factor" and "Dancing With the Stars" in the fall. Monday night, expected to be "The Voice's" roost next spring, comes with its own set of challenges, including "The Bachelor" on ABC in mid-season.

"'The Voice' may have been a much-needed hit for NBC, but it didn't reach the level of viewership of an 'Idol' or 'Dancing With the Stars,' not even close," said Billie Gold, VP-director for programming services at Aegis Group's Carat. "In addition, the show started pretty good for a spring-summer replacement, but as it's nearing its finale this week, audience levels have dropped slightly instead of growing."

At its upfront presentation, NBC touted "The Voice," which at the time had been on the air for just a few weeks, as an unquestionable hit. Even though the program is a shot in the arm for the Peacock, questions clearly remain.