Will The Voice be heard, or has Britain's Got Talent got its measure?

Simon Cowell is back as a judge as his ITV show tries to relive past glories, but to do so it must beat the BBC's big hope

When Simon Cowell returns with Britain's Got Talent on ITV1 on Saturday night, to do battle with BBC1's The Voice, it will be the latest episode in what has become a bitter rivalry.

Relations between Cowell and BBC1 controller Danny Cohen have soured since ITV brought the launch of Britain's Got Talent (BGT) forward to tackle the new BBC1 singing contest head-on.

Cohen described as "bizarre" comments by Cowell that he wanted to "punish" the BBC by poaching Strictly Come Dancing judge Alesha Dixon to join the panel on BGT. "We are making television, not at war," said Cohen.

Cowell replied by suggesting the BBC should "get their sense of humour back" and took umbrage at the corporation's suggestion that The Voice had more credibility than other talent shows.

"I am going to back my talent against theirs this year, that's for sure," said Cowell, the creator of ITV1's two biggest shows, BGT and The X Factor.

Both men have plenty to lose. Cohen will spend £22m on The Voice over the next two years and has faced criticism that it is a bought-in format – the brainchild of Big Brother creator John de Mol – rather than an in-house show.

The Voice, which has been a big hit in the US, features "blind" auditions in which the celebrity coaches – who include Sir Tom Jones, Jessie J and will.i.am – turn their backs on the singers.

The Black Eyed Peas frontman is earning an estimated £500,000; the other two about £200,000 each.

Cowell, meanwhile, had a 2011 to forget. The launch of The X Factor in the US failed to live up to expectations while the most recent series of BGT, with Cowell largely absent, was a shadow of its former self.

"The test will be, do the UK audience love Simon Cowell as much as they used to?" said Wayne Garvie, the former BBC entertainment chief who is now a senior executive with independent producer All3Media.

BGT, which had nearly 10 million viewers last year, returns for its sixth series with a reinvigorated judging lineup featuring Little Britain star David Walliams and the restored Cowell.

It is expected to attract more viewers than The Voice, but the question is how big will its lead be?

"I think The Voice needs at least six million," said Garvie. "They could probably live with five but anything less than six and you'd think that's a hard climb."

Cohen has played down ratings expectations and denied that The Voice's success – or failure – would define his controllership.

"Later in the year I have got to manage the largest sequence of live events in the BBC's history – the Queen's diamond jubilee, the European football championships and the Olympics," he said. "This is one show in one genre which I'm very proud of and like very much."

Leanne Klein, creative director of The Voice producer Wall to Wall, said it was more credible and less exploitative than some other "talent shows that have gone before".

But there are signs that the well of talent may be running dry, with a couple of contestants on The Voice who viewers might have seen on other TV talent shows and a former member of boyband Five.

Richard Holloway, executive producer of BGT and righthand man to Cowell, said the BBC1 show was a "very repetitive format" and hoped to beat it in the ratings by "a good million, a couple of million more".

Overnight ratings for both shows will be published on Sunday morning. Cowell, Cohen and his ITV counterpart, Peter Fincham, will be paying close attention.

Reputations in the balance

There are big reputations on the line this Saturday as the BBC's new shiny floor show The Voice does battle against Britain's Got Talent. Tom Jones is under no illusions about the fact that his talent will be hanging in the balance too.

"Yes, I think as far as the public are concerned, because you're throwing yourself out there," says the singer and now coach on The Voice. "You're making decisions so people at home are going to be saying 'What the…', 'Why would he do that?', 'What's the matter, is he deaf?'."

Jones, an old hand in this kind of situation, doesn't stoke the rivalry between the shows –"We've got to make it as good as we possibly can and whatever is thrown against you then there's nothing you can do about that" – but his fellow host, singer with The Script, Danny O'Donoghue, is less guarded about the difference between the two talent contests.

"We asked [people auditioning] why The Voice?. Why this was their choice and not any other show. And most of their answers were 'because we feared we were being ridiculed on many of the other shows'. And I thought that was sad to hear."

Jones, who was persuaded to take part by Alan Yentob, found the hardest part of the process for him had been sending people home. "I don't like that. I've never had to do that before in my life," he says.

"It was very difficult. When I watched other talent shows and you see people getting emotional, I thought it was show business. But when you're there you realise that it is very emotional."

In contrast with Britain's Got Talent, the coaches don't hear the competitors' sob stories as they audition, or see how they look, Jones says. "You can only hear it. You can't see it, you're not thrown by a performance. Because a lot of people see more than they hear, particularly with television."

Vicky Frost


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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