The season finales of Fox's "American Idol" and NBC's "The Voice" each drew more than 10 million viewers last month.
That's good news and bad news for Ford and Kia, whose brands have been intertwined with the programs through elaborate sponsorship deals that include vehicles given as prizes to the top performers.
According to ratings estimates from Nielsen Co., 11.7 million people watched the three finalists on "The Voice" each choose a new Kia from a lineup of five vehicles arrayed on stage during the show's May 20 finale. The next night, 10.5 million people watched "Idol" finalists Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson dumbstruck at the sight of the 2015 Ford Mustangs they were awarded on the show's final episode of the season.
By normal prime-time TV standards, those audiences are huge, especially given today's fragmented viewership dispersed across hundreds of channels. But each show's audience was its smallest for a season finale, with "The Voice" down 16 percent and "Idol" off more than 26 percent from its previous finale, according to Nielsen.
The flagging finales highlight the fading popularity of the music competition genre that defined an era in prime-time network TV and provided a powerful platform for auto brands and their product launches.
At its peak, from 2005 through 2007, "American Idol" drew an average audience of more than 30 million viewers per week -- including more than 15 million 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic advertisers covet most -- to watch the acerbic Simon Cowell and his fellow judges coax contestants toward stardom, or crush their hopes. The surprise hit first season of "The Voice" in 2011 attracted about 13.4 million viewers per episode before growing to nearly 15 million weekly viewers in 2012. The Nielsen data include viewers who watch the shows on digital video recorders within seven days of airing.
There for the ride each week were Ford and Kia, whose big-budget sponsorships offered them a chance to show off their latest vehicles in creative ways before a TV audience that almost no other show could match in terms of size.
Such success wasn't assured when Ford signed on as a sponsor of the first "Idol" season in 2001. "We certainly lucked out with the fact that this was a property we found 13 years ago, and it was ahead of an increasing trend," says Ginger Kasanic, experiential marketing manager at Ford Motor Co. who oversees the "Idol" partnership.
This was before the advent of so-called second-screen activity fueled by fans talking about the show on Facebook and Twitter. But Ford saw "Idol" as a chance to show its product line to a mainstream American audience during the early stages of a product renaissance.
Ford began by sponsoring music videos shot for "Idol" contestants. In later seasons, Ford integrated products into the show's storylines, such as when contestants worked with Ford designers to create customized, "Idol-inspired" Fiestas as the car was being launched.
The integrations on "Idol" gave Ford a stage to showcase new or redesigned vehicles to a large and rapt audience over more than 30 episodes per season.
"Even though we try to show multiple vehicles from the lineup over the course of a season, we try to pick one or two vehicles to showcase that are significant for that year," Kasanic says. "We've seen increases in consideration and purchase intent for these vehicles that were focused on in a given year."
Kia signed on to sponsor "The Voice" in 2012 after the show's first season, when it attracted more than 13.4 million viewers per episode including about 7 million 18- to 49-year-olds.
Michael Sprague, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Kia Motors America, says the partnership has been a perfect fit for Kia because the show involves three key attributes that Kia seeks in its marketing efforts: music, pop culture and "connected life."
"Connected life" entails a highly engaged social media audience, with each episode producing an average of 208,000 Tweets in 2013, according to Nielsen. Sprague says the show is also "appointment TV" that most viewers watch live, as opposed to scripted programming that they might record or stream over the Internet.
"People schedule their evenings around it," Sprague says.
Kia also integrates key products into the show's action, with host Carson Daly driving "Voice" contestants in Kias to appointments with celebrity voice coaches such as R&B singer Usher, and contestants riding up to the stage in Kia vehicles before the show's one-on-one singing "battle rounds."
This past season, Sprague says, Kia heavily featured the Sorento mid-sized crossover on "The Voice." Meanwhile, many of the brand's TV commercials have focused on the Optima mid-sized sedan.
Through its role in "The Voice," Kia was able to get broadcast TV exposure for the Sorento, "but in a much more targeted way," Sprague says.
In last month's finale, Daly at one point quipped that contestant Christina Grimmie looked like she belonged in a Kia ad as she stood next to her alien-green Soul.
Sprague acknowledges that "Voice" audiences are declining, "but the numbers are still huge relative to what else is on TV," he says. "These are shows that people are still passionate about and still have quite a bit of life still ahead."
"Idol," meanwhile, has faced some turmoil, with two longtime executive producers leaving the show last year amid sagging ratings. Last month, Kevin Reilly, chairman of Fox Entertainment, left the network, just weeks after pitching advertisers for the network's upcoming TV season.
During those presentations, Reilly said Fox would pare "Idol" to about 37 hours of programming from about 50 hours in its latest season, according to a report in Advertising Age, an affiliate of Automotive News.
Kasanic says Ford is still evaluating whether it will continue to sponsor "Idol" in its next installment. She says her group is always looking for the next big cultural phenomenon.
With more TV viewers consuming content, including TV shows, on smartphones and tablets, that next big thing may not be on TV.
"The show still has a very large audience," Kasanic says. "That'll play a part in it, but like everything else, you have a certain pot of money and so many places to spend it."