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Music Competition Shows Work Hard to Stand Out and Grab Auds

With nbc’s “The Voice” and ABC’s new incarnation of “American Idol” both doing well in the ratings, and the second season of Fox’s “The Four: Battle for Stardom” returning June 7, there’s clearly a demand for music competition shows.

“I hear so many reasons from people,” says “The Voice” exec producer/showrunner Audrey Morrissey. “It’s also because they’re singing songs we all know and love. It’s also escapism — people use these shows to shut out the world for a few hours every week. And people like a good underdog story.”

Adds David Eilenberg, exec producer of “The Four” and chief creative officer of ITV America: “Wish fulfillment is certainly part of it, but I also think there’s a universality to music that may not be true of other genres of unscripted TV. And it’s a collective experience on a very visceral, emotional level.”

Networks also love how  the interactivity of such shows — from viewer voting to social media — generates an urgency to watch live. Despite obvious similarities, today’s top singing competition shows have their own twists.

“ ‘American Idol’ was the original. We worked out what worked, what didn’t work in
the format, which set the tone for everything that followed — and there have been some really good shows that have followed,” says Trish Kinane, showrunner/exec producer of “American Idol” and president of entertainment programming at FremantleMedia North America.

She says the months-long audition process “Idol” judges participate in is unique to the show. “On some other shows, 60 or 70 [singers] get put in front of the judges. We put hundreds and hundreds in front of our judges on the road, and there’s still 200 to 220 people who come to Hollywood Week, and the judges go through them all,” says Kinane, who is also exec producer of “America’s Got Talent.”

The blind auditions on “The Voice” are central to that show’s success, but pitting coaches and their teams against each other adds another layer of competition that fans love.

“The competition between coaches is both friendly and very real. That’s part of the charm and secret sauce of this format,” Morrissey says. She points out that the first winner of “American Idol,” Kelly Clarkson, coached the latest “Voice” winner during her first season in that role.

“The Four” cultivates a gladiator feel, with competitors introduced each week to try to oust the four finalists.

“The other thing is, certainly with Diddy [Sean Combs] and DJ Khaled [among the panelists], we bring the voice of hip-hop to the music competition genre at a time where hip-hop is the number one music format in the world. We’re also on the network of ‘Empire’ and ‘Star’ so it all just seems to fit and is another way we’re different from the competition,” says Eilenberg.

“Clearly there’s room for many shows. As long as shows have their own distinct lanes, they’ll find their audience,” Morrisey says. “It’s all supportive of music, and I’m a big fan of that.  Music has many different genres, and many aspects to it, and these shows explore that. I think there’s room for more of that — there are still more layers and aspects of the music business that can be explored.”

Of course, when shows go head-to-head like “Idol” and “The Voice” did a few times this spring, fans have to decide which show to watch live and which to watch later.

“Even if you add up ratings on the days they aired directly against each other, I think something like 18 million people were watching singing shows, live, on a Monday night,” Kinane says. “That’s a lot of people who love singing shows.”

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