Singing series outshadowed 'X Factor,' led network to turnaround

NBC’s fall victory lap concludes tonight and Tuesday with the finale of “The Voice.”

While there was much chatter at the start of the season about viewer fatigue for singing competition series, “The Voice” came on strong out of the gate and was the driving force powering NBC to first place in the adults 18-49 demo for the season to date. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a network that had been in the Nielsen basement for most of the past decade.

NBC has aired 42 hours of “Voice” since September (not including this week’s live episodes running two hours apiece). In ratings and pop culture buzz, the Mark Burnett-produced series has handily overshadowed its primary network rival, Fox’s “The X Factor.” It also provided a Monday launch pad for NBC’s most promising new drama in years, “Revolution.”

The Peacock is gambling on “Voice’s” durability with its plan to air a second edition of the show starting in March, in contrast to the “American Idol” once-a-year playbook.

Burnett believes the “Voice” format, based on a Dutch series created by veteran hitmaker John de Mol, is fresh enough with viewers to withstand two cycles in season. There will be fresh faces at the judges table as well, with Shakira and Usher stepping in for Christina Aguilera and CeeLo Green.

Fundamentally, however, Burnett emphasizes that the show’s appeal lies in the storytelling that emerges from the coaching work the judges do with their contestant teams — which ramps up the emotional drama for participants and viewers alike.

Unlike other singing competition programs, on “The Voice,” judges step out from behind the table to coach and offer advice to contestants before each performance and subsequent elimination. Green, for one, was brought to tears last week when one of his team members delivered an emotional performance.

“There’s this feeling in the country about the 1% and the 99%,” Burnett told Variety. “Particularly, these 1% are often seen as famous people who are unreachable. On this show, when more than one chair turns around, an unknown, aspiring singer is suddenly in control … and these superstars are pitching themselves.”

The prominence of “Voice” judges as stars in their own right is also important to viewers. That’s one reason why the show had to bring in new judges for the spring season.

“These aren’t people whose careers are over. They’re at the top of their career right now,” Burnett said. “I knew our coaches would have to take a break because of their careers. In a lot of these shows, judging is their actual job. On ‘The Voice,’ it’s not our coaches’ true job.”

Burnett added that while the industry buzzed about the implications surrounding back-to-back seasons of “Voice,” he is “used to” two cycles a year for his shows: “When ‘Survivor’ came on, it immediately went to two cycles per year, and same thing with ‘Apprentice.’ Had ‘The Voice’ not gone to two cycles per year, it wouldn’t be on right now, and it wouldn’t be a leader for NBC.”

Since the start of the season, NBC is up 23% in adults 18-49, to 3.2 rating/9 share, vs. the same frame last season. “Sunday Night Football” has been a factor for the Peacock but not as much of a growth driver as “Voice,” which is new to the Peacock’s fall sked. The Monday edition of the show is averaging a 5.2 in the key demo and 13.9 million viewers, while the Tuesday seg has averaged a 4.6 in 18-49 and 12.7 million viewers.

The “Voice” format is getting a workout around the world as the show has popped as a top draw in a slew of key territories, ranging from the U.K. and Australia to Mexico and Brazil and more than two dozen other territories.

Burnett is trying to stay ahead of the curve in adding elements such as the “steal,” where contestants can be rescued from elimination even if they don’t win their battle round.

“The steal was a big change,” Burnett said. “This element of the little guy having control went away completely in the battle rounds in past seasons, but the steals bring that back in…I imagine other countries would adopt that format change for ‘The Voice.’ “

Also, starting with the final 12 this season, all contestants performed each week. “Last year, you wouldn’t see some of them for three weeks,” Burnett noted. Placing all contestants in each broadcast of “The Voice” heightened the connection between viewer and the overall competition.

Adding to this connection is “The Voice’s” cross-branding with iTunes. By buying and downloading a single from a contestant on “The Voice,” a viewer is casting a vote for that contestant in the competition. (Singles are available during broadcasts, emphasizing an immediate relationship between viewer and music.) These singles routinely dominating the iTunes charts, at times even nabbing three of the top four single spots.

“The Voice” is still a relatively young series compared to Fox’s juggernaut “American Idol,” which is about to enter its 12th season. Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly recently said he anticipates that “Idol” will begin a “graceful descent into maturity,” though some may argue that descent began several seasons ago. (Reilly also joked that he wished “The Voice” “never happened.”)

Ever the showman, Burnett does not see “The Voice” slowing down anytime soon.

“I’m used to long-running series,” he said, noting that he is on season 25 of “Survivor” and season 12 of “Apprentice.” “I have this envelope philosophy. When people used to write letters, there was a familiarity of that envelope, the handwritten address, the postmark. It’s what was inside that was fresh. ‘The Voice’ has a similar anchoring feeling for fans. There are format evolutions like the steal so you keep it fresh, but it would be crazy to change the overall feeling.”

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