The unlikely rise of a would-be hit

“The Voice” is looking like it could be the sleeper hit that NBC so desperately needs.

The singing competition series on Tuesday became the first new show of the season to see its ratings climb in its second week on the air — dominating the night in demos over established hits “Dancing With the Stars,” “NCIS” and “Glee.”

One week after opening with the best premiere score for any series of the season, “Voice’s” week-two episode notched a 12% week-over-week increase in the 18-49 demo. Its 5.7 rating is the biggest score for a regular NBC entertainment series since the series finale of “ER” in April 2009.

That’s welcome news for NBC, which is looking at a fall without Steve Carell on its top scripted show “The Office” and — gulp — maybe even without “Sunday Night Football.”

No wonder Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke were mentioning “Voice” on Wednesday’s earnings call in the same breath as the conglomerate’s reigning box-office champ, “Fast Five.” Roberts hailed “Voice” as “maybe the most exciting event” to occur at NBCUniversal since Comcast acquired the company.

Burke cited “Voice” as a building block for a primetime schedule that will see a $200 million increase in investment, not to mention the beneficiary of an already super-synergized portfolio of cable and digital properties cross-promoting high-priority productions at every turn.

Peacock brass so far have been careful not to trumpet the success of “Voice” too hard just yet. But the series’ second-week increase exceeded expectations at the network even though there were indications in last week’s numbers that “Voice” was the real deal; its audience grew throughout its premiere telecast and repeated well one night later, as well as in a Saturday night encore airing on NBC’s new cable sibling E!.

But the performance of “Voice” is all the more remarkable considering the odds stacked against its emergence.

First, NBC has not exactly been fertile breeding ground for success stories on the ratings front in recent years. No genre has been more elusive than the unscripted realm, which has provided ratings powerhouses to all the broadcasters except the Peacock.

Even more frustrating has been a flurry of reality shows that have scored premiere ratings comparable to “Voice” only to subsequently fizzle, including “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” “The Marriage Ref,” “The Singing Bee” and, of course, “The Jay Leno Show.”

Also consider that “Voice” represents the first competition series in the unscripted genre to break out at the broadcast level in quite some time; long-running series like “Survivor” and “Hell’s Kitchen” find few younger peers. Even more mystifying is how “Voice” managed to pop in the shadow of the ever-dominant “American Idol,” a series so similar given its singing-talent focus that some critics zinged NBC for manufacturing a cheap knock-off.

But NBC may have succeeded precisely by embracing the “Idol” comparison and positioning “Voice” as an anti-“Idol,” countering the Fox juggernaut’s reputation for nastiness and superficiality with an alternative that boasted nurturing “coaches” like Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera who prized talent over beauty.

Then, there’s the fact that “Voice” bowed in April, a month that hasn’t yielded a new hit series in years. Memorable flops of the past five years alone have included “Secret Talents of the Stars” and “Miami Medical” on CBS, “Heist” and “Real Wedding Crashers” on NBC, “Surviving Suburbia” and “Romantically Challenged” on NBC and “Drive” and “Sit Down, Shut Up” on Fox.”Voice” could have easily been ignored in a season of transition at NBC, where entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt hasn’t embraced every project left over by the previous administration. But the project’s potential was recognized and subsequently realized in a cross-promotional blitz that saw heavy exposure for the series at the affiliate level.

As ubiquitous as promotion for “Voice” may have seemed in a Los Angeles teeming with billboards, NBC actually spent about one-third of what it would lavish on a series launch nationwide in the fall. What’s more, the marketing spend was largely concentrated to the 10-day period before “Voice’s April 26 debut — a shorter run-up than the typical NBC campaign.

NBC even took the unprecedented step of using late-night staples like “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live” to air extended sneak peeks of “Voice,” a plan the network announced Wednesday it would continue Saturday at the Kentucky Derby for the show’s upcoming “battle” round. But don’t expect NBC to rush a second season of “Voice” in the fall to help bolster its new series launches. Insiders say the production would be hard-pressed to reboot that quickly, and even if it could, broadcasters including NBC know all too well the peril of trying to strike while the iron is hot when moderation is the wiser option; witness the rapid rise and fall of “American Gladiators.”

Then there is the logistical difficulty that comes with reassembling its roster of coaches, which also includes Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who all have busy music careers in their own right that may already including plans for touring later in the year. NBC isn’t likely to recast any of them given the fragile chemistry that can wreak havoc with any unscripted series.

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