'Idol' Flounders With Judges, Fresh 'Voice'

Shakira, Usher addition to 'The Voice' shows that a coach or judge swap doesn't spell doom for reality shows

March 25 was undoubtedly a stressful day for NBC brass.

After several primetime flubs and record-low ratings, the return of “The Voice” to the Peacock’s lineup — with a handful of new coaches, to boot — was a high stakes game of wait-and-see. Would viewers stick with the show, and provide NBC with much-needed ratings relief? Or would the shifts made to the coaches’ spinning chairs drive audience away?

Lucky for NBC, “The Voice” returned full steam, with viewers embracing Shakira’s warm, Latin sensibility and Usher’s aloof charm (with one leg now infamously propped up on his spinning chair). Mainstays Adam Levine and Blake Shelton also shined, and the chemistry was evident among the quartet at NBC’s Summer Press Day this week.

Season four premiere of “The Voice” topped the season three debut in total viewership, proving the show could thrive without coaches Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green.

While the impressive return speaks to the strength of the singing competition’s format, that success also quiets assumptions regarding the impact of judge and coach turnover on reality shows.

“The Voice’s” ability to smoothly weather such changes appears to be in contrast to TV’s other preeminent singing competition, “American Idol.”  This week, press including The Hollywood Reporter have reported “Idol” producers and Fox execs had a secret plan to oust Mariah Carey from the judging table and replace her with Jennifer Lopez, a former judge on the series. According to those reports, the plan was hatched due to slumping ratings, and Carey responded by threatening litigation.

In “Idol’s” heyday, when its initial slate of judges (Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell) were firmly seated at the table, the Fox skein drew upwards of 30 million viewers per broadcast. All the tumult and speculation surrounding the shifting lineup of judges, however, has led many viewers and insiders to question whether the program is even about the contestants anymore. Take Carey and Nicki Minaj butting heads, which drew attention to the show, yes, but the friction seemed to be one of the biggest draws this season.

NBC, along with Aguilera and Green, played their PR cards right when it came to the transition, emphasizing that the move was to allow Green and Aguilera to continue to pursue their flourishing careers, and that they would probably be back in the spinning chairs after some time off.

The baton hand off to Usher and Shakira, then, was courteous and friendly.

Shakira explained to journos, “The producers just told me, ‘Shakira, be yourself.’ It’s all about being spontaneous, and I think that’s what’s so awesome about the show.”

“I was a little nervous [about the new additions] because I knew how well the show was doing,” Shelton admitted. “It’s a music talent show in a world where there are a lot of those, and [ours] worked, and I’d never met either Usher or Shakira before. The one thing you can’t fake is chemistry… I’ll be damned if it’s not as strong as it’s ever been with the four of us.”

Usher noted when it comes to “The Voice,” “they didn’t need us for the show to work…I was very proud of what I saw before, and I guess what I brought was years of experience and opinion, and years of mentoring other artists.”

It helps that both Usher and Shakira are ubiquitous in their respective genres of music — Usher is a vet in the R&B space, while Shakira blends a pop aesthetic with her Colombian roots. Levine remains the show’s rock and alternative guru, while Shelton continues to boast his country chops.

Exec producer Mark Burnett noted, “The coaches are all current stars. This show is not their day job.”

The addition of Shakira has also come in tandem with a surge of bilingual contestants singing Spanish-language songs for their auditions. Given that Hispanic auds are on the rise and being targeted by network brass and shingles throughout the U.S., these contestants and the presence of Shakira in a chair on “The Voice” offer the show yet another advantage when compared to its competitors.

“As the show has grown, it’s reflecting the population,” explained Burnett. “It was very fortuitous that there happened to be a lot of bilingual singers in the final mix. We do acknowledge that there’s an enormous Spanish-speaking audience that has influence on TV and radio. It wasn’t planned, it just worked out great.”

Then, not missing a beat and highlighting the panel’s chemistry, Levine quipped: “We’re going to start having people do Jewish folk songs for their auditions. It’s important to me.”

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