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Can ‘The Voice’ be heard?

NBC hopes musical competition show resonates in crowded field

Later this month, NBC will be joining the list of networks singing for its supper when it debuts “The Voice,” a musical competition show from reality royalty Mark Burnett and John de Mol set to launch April 26.

The Peacock has been preparing the ground with conference calls and a media day with journos. On-air promotions speak to auds directly; turn to NBC in primetime and you’ll likely see “Voice” promos crawling across the bottom of the screen.

But it’s not just NBC that wants to face the music. “American Idol” network Fox is set to launch the highly publicized “The X Factor” in September, and this summer ABC is offering up “Karaoke Battle USA.” On cable, there’s Oxygen’s “The Glee Project” and CMT’s “Next Superstar.”

NBC, however, has been particularly busy in the format. Another round of the Peacock’s “America’s Got Talent” is on tap, and, possibly, “The Singing Bee.” Come the holidays, the net might also pour another round of “The Sing Off” as well.

The question remains whether there are enough viewers interested in these musical competition shows to keep them all sustainable.

Not all past renditions have succeeded. NBC’s “Clash of the Choirs” lasted only four episodes a few years back. But the percentage of music-based shows becoming hits rather than being one-hit wonders is impressive.

Indeed, music seems to be in the zeitgeist on primetime these days — and the trend isn’t relegated to the reality competition format.

ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” scored very well with its March 31 episode, in which the characters burst into song; and the same night, Fox’s special “Mobbed,” in which participants break into song and dance, did well enough that the net has ordered it as a regular series; and then there’s Fox smash “Glee,” which continues to generate top-selling singles on iTunes and other digital distribution points.

“History shows us there’s a huge appetite for these shows and there’s enough to go around for everybody,” says Monte Lipman, president-CEO of Universal Republic Records, the label that is offering the winner of “The Voice” a record deal. “Music is more prevalent than it has ever been.”

NBC alternative topper Paul Telegdy believes the talent show subgenre can still be where the next big reality hit comes from.

“I think there is an irrepressible urge for us to sing and dance. Our audience’s relationship to music is expanding rapidly.”

Telegdy says the Peacock’s ratings expectations are tempered. Before the “American Idol” season began, NBC might have been hoping the megahit’s fervor would have died down to create a hunger for something new, but now “The Voice” will be airing (for a month anyway) on Tuesdays while a still-healthy “Idol,” which remains TV’s top show in its 10th season, dominates on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Telegdy cautions that “The Voice” won’t be trying to take “Idol” down, but rather aims to co-exist in a run skedded to continue through June.

While “Idol” ratings had been falling in recent years, the show has seen an uptick with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler on the judges’ panel. Some also say this season’s competitors are drastically better than in year’s past, and that the higher talent levels are bringing viewers back to the Fox juggernaut.

NBC is hoping its own star-studded coaches panel will bring eyes and ears to “The Voice.” Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Cee Lo Green and country star Blake Shelton will assist competitors on the show.

Aguilera says “The Voice” will benefit from having the celebrities participate more than in other comparable musical competition series (though in its early stages, the show will feature blind auditions, with singers with their backs to the coaches).

“We’re not just making comments and then going home. We’re getting completely involved,” Aguilera says. “I wish there was a show like this when I first started to hear my favorite artist give me their life and career experiences.”

Meanwhile, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, exec producer of both “American Idol” and Simon Cowell’s fall series “The X Factor,” believes those two skeins can thrive without cannibalizing one another.

“?’Idol’ and ‘X Factor’ are two very different shows,” Frot-Coutaz says. “Yes, there are a lot of these shows, but the key is always the ones (that) survive bring something different (to the table).”

The pool of contestants for “The X Factor” begins at 12 years old (“Idol” lowered the age to 15 this season) and has no upper age limit. First-time auditions for “X Factor” will take place in front of a large audience. Winner receives a $5 million recording contract with Cowell’s Syco label and Sony Music.

For “The Voice,” where the winner receives $100,000 and a recording contract with Universal Republic Records, the coaches will eliminate contestants during the first weeks of the show. Toward the end, viewers will vote who should go.

“The X Factor” has the advantage of already being a hit in the U.K., with a 65% audience share, and local versions spread among 15 territories around the globe.

That said, with “The Voice” set to launch five months before “X Factor,” Fox may be concerned the rival show may step on “X Factor’s” buzz; Fox has skedded a 90-minute episode of “Glee” featuring the music of Lady Gaga on the same night “The Voice” debuts, with the last half-hour carrying over into the NBC show. And Cowell has been on a press spree of late, including an appearance on the CNN talker “Piers Morgan” last week

A key to the “The Voice” likely will be Aguilera, who has sold more than 50 million albums but arrives on the NBC show at a time when her career may be at a crossroads. She appeared in the critically hammered film “Burlesque,” has been the recipient of some unpleasant tabloid fodder, and made headlines for her version of the National Anthem during the Super Bowl, in which she mistakenly omitted a line from the song.

That sequence of events may ultimately work to the show’s advantage, however. Paula Abdul, who was often accused of bringing the crazy to “American Idol,” became a weekly attraction viewers didn’t want to miss. If the same recipe works again, it will be music to NBC’s ears.

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