By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "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.
Darnell recalled that a year ago, TV critics were predicting the demise of "Idol" following the exit of acerbic judge Cowell. But, thanks partly to the addition of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and pop star Jennifer Lopez as judges, "it came roaring back."
"This is the show the audience loves, and this is the show the audience wants to come back to," Darnell said.
Fox executives note that even if "American Idol" were to lose 10 percent of its audience from now on, it would still be a Top 3 show until 2015, if all the other shows on TV continued their current performance.
Yet this year, more than ever, questions are being raised about viewer fatigue, given the new, rival shows.
"That is the thing I am really curious about. Is there going to be singing competition burn out?" said Mansfield.
Mansfield wasn't talking so much about "The Voice", which put a twist on the format with blind auditions and live performances by its superstar judges Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
"X Factor," however, was so similar to "Idol" that viewers might have little appetite for another singing binge so soon, Mansfield said.
"I would be less concerned about direct competition from 'The Voice' than having viewers siphoned by 'X Factor' who now go, enough of the singing competitions," he said.
The verdict is unlikely to come during the first few weeks of the program, as audiences often don't connect until late in a season when they get a say in which contestants stay or go.
"Idol" caught fire in 2011 as teen country stars Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina emerged as likely finalists. McCreery, 17, the eventual winner, went straight to the top of the Billboard album charts in October in the best debut by an Idol champion since 2008. Last week, McCreery's "Clear As Day" album went platinum after selling more than one million copies.
"Last year, we had nearly twice the numbers to our Idol Chatter website around the final than we have ever had. For us, it was a jaw-dropping number," said Mansfield.
Fox television is a unit of News Corp; NBC is majority owned by Comcast Corp.
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)