piage-thomas.jpgLOS ANGELES – Heading into their competition, the stakes were high, the tactics fierce and the rhetoric heating up.

Obama versus Romney? Nope.

It was the contest between The Voice and The X Factor, which escalated after NBC abruptly moved to pit its Voice against Wednesday’s second-season debut of Fox’s X Factor.

The two singing contests already faced a tussle over audience votes when NBC scheduled a fall cycle of The Voice after it proved itself as a solid spring performer.

Then, in a post-Labor Day surprise, an apparently mischievous NBC said it was expanding the show’s first week from Monday and Tuesday to include a third episode, which happened to air opposite the first hour of the X Factor bow at 8 p.m.-10 p.m. EDT Wednesday. Fox’s show also aired Thursday.

Suddenly, the battle of the talent shows is much more interesting.

Or make that infuriating, if you’re X Factor creator, executive producer and judge Simon Cowell. Known for his creative critiques as an American Idol panelist (“You sound like a cat jumping off the Empire State Building”), he was simply blunt about NBC’s move.

Cowell took off the gloves when he told a teleconference last week that he was angry “because I think there’s a kind of gentleman’s agreement.”

He called the NBC move “mean-spirited” and said, “I hope and I pray that it backfires on them, because it’s one of the best shows we’ve ever made,” adding that three consecutive nights of Voice is “too much” and viewers will choose X Factor.

“But I’ve learned, don’t make any predictions,” he said, tempering bravado with caution.

In fact, as he feared, NBC’s strategy paid off: In their overlapping hour The Voice scored a 3.4. rating to The X Factor’s 2.7 among the coveted 18-49 demographic, and snagged more viewers, 10.7 million to 8.4.

Season two represents a sophomore reboot for X Factor, which did well last season but failed to pull the 20 million viewers Cowell had grandly predicted. Instead, it averaged about 12.6 million for its performance and results episodes, which Cowell saw as a “wake-up call” for how to handle the U.S. version of his British hit.

(The Voice averaged 15.9 million last season, with results shows coming in at 11.3 million.) “I was a bit cocky,” Cowell said in a recent interview.

So is X Factor sharper now that first-year judges Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul are out and Britney Spears and Demi Lovato are in? Also gone is host Steve Jones, to be replaced before live episodes begin in November by a likely male-female duo yet to be chosen (Kevin McHale of Glee, Kelly Osbourne and Khloe Kardashian are among the rumored candidates).

Yes, said Cowell, with the new judges and new producers making a difference.
“The show looks better and feels better than what we did a year ago. I can see an improvement. I’m happy with it,” he said.

LIKES HIS JUDGES

Spears and Lovato are “doing great,” according to Cowell. “With Britney, everybody expects there’s going to be some kind of car crash with her. But it’s not. She’s very switched on, very focused. … She has good taste and from working with her you can understand why she’s lasted so long in the industry.

“She totally understands the music business and understands the difference between a good singer and a potential star.”

Lovato, 20, also is “a very hot recording artist,” Cowell said, and one who’s closer to the age of the audience that Fox wants to attract, the young adults for whom sponsors pay higher ad rates.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

All that optimism, and then came the decision by NBC that Cowell labeled a “spoiling tactic.”

NBC declined to comment.

Voice executive producer Mark Burnett, who said he was unaware of his show’s added night and that it never occurred to him the two shows would compete, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

He’s not afraid of a little verbal hardball, however. Recently, Burnett pointedly noted that there are format changes for The Voice, but he’s sticking with original mentors Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine as long as they’re available — in obvious contrast to Cowell’s musical chairs.

“Truly we’ve gotten so close with all these guys, and it really has become like a family,” Burnett said, explaining why he opened his Malibu home for a Voice news conference.

The X Factor should be more concerned with postseason Major League Baseball preemptions as Fox airs the playoffs, said analyst Brad Adgate of media-buyer Horizon Media.

For The Voice, there’s competition to come from ABC’s popular Dancing With the Stars and the potential of overkill with two runs in a year, he said, while American Idol is still on and strong in part because Fox airs it once annually.

Fox kind of protected it, and I don’t think NBC is doing that with The Voice, he said.

“I was kind of surprised they took one of the few bona fide hits on the network and are running the risk of viewer fatigue.”

Perhaps Cowell might heed one TV analyst’s suggestion: Get over a “business as usual” chess move by NBC.

“It’s strategy. All the networks try to take advantage of whatever special circumstances they can bring,” said Bill Carroll of media-buyer Katz Media. “With Cowell, everything is terrible and outrageous: ‘How could they do this to me?’ Well, they’re not doing it to him.”

“Shows get moved around. That’s just the nature of what happens,” Carroll said. “If X Factor is going to be a draw it will be, no matter what it runs up against.”