Reality Shows Raise Stakes with Coaches

'The Voice' fuels trend of judges serving as mentors to contenders in competition skeins

In competitive sports, every player needs a good coach. That’s becoming true in reality TV as well, as programs begin to offer a fresh spin on the elimination genre by shifting away cold, hard judging and towards intimate mentorship between contestants and celeb judges.

The move to bring reality judges out from behind the desk has been spurred largely by the success of NBC’s “The Voice,” which emphasizes the investment that star panelists make in nurturing their diamonds in the rough. In December, “Voice” exec producer Mark Burnett told Variety that he believes the use of superstar coaches in reality TV resounds with auds because it, in a way, breaks down the gap between the “99% and 1%” in society.

Frosh competish programs including Oxygen’s modeling competish “The Face” and ABC’s cooking show “The Taste” take a page from the singing skein’s format by emphasizing superstar coaches and eliminations based primarily on merit.

“If you look into the real world of these industries, you’d find that most people involved would rather put an arm around someone than simply judge them,” said Eden Gaha, topper of Shine America and exec producer on “The Face.” “We looked at ‘The Voice’ and thought the tonal shift was refreshing and interesting…I like the trend.”

The tonal shift, then, heightens the stakes for viewers as the coaches also have a rooting interest in the outcome of the elimination rounds. What’s more, the star-coaches become more significant characters in the overall show and adds to the feel-good storyline. NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” has traded on that dynamic for years, with fitness gurus motivating their teams towards healthier lifestyles and dramatic weight loss.

The coaching boom has drawn some unlikely celeb suspects, including Naomi Campbell, the supermodel better known for her tirades than her patience in bringing newcomers along. She serves as an exec producer and coach for “Face.”

“I liked the idea of sharing,” Campbell explained. “I mean, what am I keeping this knowledge for? It’s a good way to use what you’ve gained…I’m still in contact with the girls on my team. I just spoke with one of them yesterday. Whether the cameras or running or not, I’m going to keep them in my life and I hope they keep me in theirs.”

“The Taste,” which bowed on the Alphabet on Jan. 22, features both pro and amateur cooks who prep meals for a panel of four celeb chefs that also serve as mentors to the contestants. Eliminations are based on blind taste tests each week. Program has, so far, pulled decent ratings for Alphabet, including in the coveted adult 18-49 demo.

“Taste” exec producer Chris Coelen said he feels the show’s coach format and merit-based blind taste tests add an important level of “authenticity” to the show.

“In many of these reality series, you can feel the hand of the producers or judges guiding the decisions,” Coelen said. “If you’re going to create a competition about how the food tastes and you want it to be open to everybody, then you have to put everyone on an even playing field with a blind evaluation. It was interesting, as a producer, to not have control over what’s going to happen.”

Coelen was quick to note that “The Taste” is not derivative of “The Voice’s” format, pointing out that once the early blind auditions of the singing show end, “The Voice” settles into a standard competition show.

“We keep that blind element present every week,” Coelen said. “This is really important in terms of these chefs putting their credibility on the line — you try to shape someone, influence their skill, and it’s possible they make a meal that after all that tutelage you don’t even like.”

The evolution to meritocracy in reality TV comes as auds are more than apt to believe that many of today’s competish shows are rigged for dramatic purposes. In December, A&E was sued by a former personality on its hit “Storage Wars,” claiming producers salted the storage units before the taped auctions. Other programs, including “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “The Bachelor,” have faced similar accusations of being rigged.

Even shows that have avoided these allegations can find contestants with emotional pasts in the race longer than viewers expected, leaving auds to wonder if sob story has more pull than talent.

“The audience is looking for the real,” Gaha stated. “This coaching and merit-based element [in reality TV], we’ve been doing that for 14 seasons on ‘The Biggest Loser.’ On ‘The Biggest Loser,’ it’s all about the scale. The contestants are put in an environment where how you perform is just as important as the back story. It is, at the end of the day, a merit-based vote.”

“The Face” has arguably one of the hardest competition formats to apply a merit-based system to, since there can be no blind elimination tests for models. However, the Oxygen skein found a way to remove the bulk of the judging from the supermodel coaches’ hands by bringing real clients in to each episode and allowing them to judge the contestants. During the premiere episode, for example, W Magazine editors called the shots when it came to which group of girls finished last in the photo shoot challenge.

Campbell’s team member was eliminated, which upset the veteran model.

“The biggest shock for me,” “The Face” host Nigel Barker said, “was how passionate these supermodels were for the contestants. Coco, Karolina and Naomi, they’d stay all day and night on the set. And, during days off from shooting, they’d take the girls to dinner, or to the spa. I’d never seen that before.” He paused, before finishing, “It was really refreshing.”

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