“The Masked Singer” is already a smash. Now, with the help of this Sunday’s Super Bowl, Fox hopes to solidify the franchise’s ratings power — especially as it prepares a dance-focused spinoff.
The breakout reality series — which features actors, singers, athletes and other notables belting songs while deep undercover in elaborate costumes — doesn’t necessarily need the Super Bowl. It ended the fall as the top-rated broadcast entertainment program in primetime among adults 18-49 (tied with “This Is Us”), and as the No. 1 unscripted show. But Fox alternative entertainment president Rob Wade is looking at the long term.
“You can say, ”Masked Singer’ is a hit already, so why put it there?’ The thing is, it is the No. 1 show, but you could always do better,” he says. “Having 100 million eyeballs there is going to build awareness of the show beyond even where it is now.”
Wade says the idea to make it the Super Bowl lead-out came soon after the show’s successful launch last year. Fox scheduling head Dan Harrison pointed out how some of the most successful shows in that slot were existing hits (remember “Friends” in 1996?) and reality shows had done particularly well there, including “Survivor” in 2001 and 2004, and “The Voice” in 2012. The choice to give “Masked Singer” that showcase became obvious (and something Fox’s sales team could sell the hell out of).
“If Super Bowl is the meal, we’re like the delicious ice cream afterwards,” says “Masked Singer” panelist Ken Jeong. “Even if I wasn’t on the show, I think it’s genius programming to follow that up with. Why not follow up the biggest event on television with the most popular show on television?”
The increased Super Bowl exposure also comes as Fox plots a brand extension of “Masked Singer” to include spinoff “The Masked Dancer.” Wade says the network isn’t ready to reveal details or promote “Masked Dancer,” but he’s aware of how important it is to solidify the franchise as it grows.
“It plants a flag in the soil and allows this huge audience to connect with the format,” he says. “It’s become a brand that everyone is comfortable with and feels they know. My hope is you’re going to get a big spike in ratings, but what I’m looking at is not the ratings of this season, it’s more like how the show will be in the psyche of the country, and that will help its longevity.”
For “The Masked Singer” executive producer Craig Plestis, landing the post-Super Bowl spot is a huge opportunity — but also a tremendous pressure. “The word ‘panic’ comes to mind,” he jokes. “I know we want to hit a home run. It’s not like we haven’t gone over everything in depth as to what we want to do between the costumes, the songs, who’s in that episode. Everything is literally analyzed a thousand times. We feel great about it.”
The episode, which doubles as the Season 3 opener, features Jamie Foxx as a guest, alongside the show’s regular panelists Jeong, Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger and Jenny McCarthy.
“We are so lucky that he wanted to do it,” Plestis says. “He tells a great story of why he wanted to do it in the first episode, about his mom. Watching him on the panel listening and figuring stuff out as a first-time panelist, he was phenomenal. I was blown away by his guesses and his reasoning. He’s such a master of pop culture and knows almost everyone anyway. So he’s really listening to voices, he’s analyzing all the clues, and piecing it together like a detective that has done this a thousand times.”
Jeong says he appreciated the nod to Season 2, when he and others assumed that Foxx was a contestant, dressed appropriately as a fox. That masked singer turned out to be Wayne Brady, who won the season.
“Jamie was already part of the narrative of last season,” Jeong notes. “He not only fit in, but he was the funniest person on the show. He is the most entertaining panelist on that episode.”
Other guest panelists this season include Jason Biggs and Leah Remini. But the real stars on the show, of course, are the masked singers themselves — and this cycle, the show has expanded the number of contestants to 18. To manage the increased number of players, the competition will now be divided into three segments of six competitors. After three of the first six singers are voted off, the second six will be whittled down to tree and so on, until there are nine players left at the end of the first set of rounds.
Plestis compares it to March Madness brackets: “It’s almost like a sports event.” And it also increases the guessing game aspect of the show, which he says “is the reason the show exists. Obviously there’s the singing, there’s the spectacle. It’s the family viewing. But at the core, it’s the guessing. So we’re putting more opportunities for America to guess within the franchise.”
But expect tougher clue packages, as the producers aim to make the game more challenging.
In selecting the 18 contestants, Plestis says he was conscious of not just stacking it with professional singers. “We love the idea of someone who has secret talent. And we’re really blessed this season by having a lot of contestants that have secret talents.”
And even the singers in disguise are getting wise. After two editions of the show, the stars have learned how to play the game.
“They’ve all seen the show,” Plestis says. “So now they want to disguise their voice. They don’t want to sing in their genre. They’re very careful about body movement. The game is actually much harder this season because the contestants are making it hard. They don’t want to be uncovered. Everyone came in saying, ‘I want to play this game. I’m gonna win it. They’re never going to guess who I am.'”
But, Wade admits, the problem with singers faking their voices is that they don’t sound as good as they normally do in real life. “There’s a balance between performance and guessability,” he says. “But I think where the sweet spot for me is when you get someone who sings really well who isn’t known to sing,” like Season 1 winner T-Pain — who’s known more for auto-tuned rapping, but turned out to also be an amazing singer.
As you’d expect, the success of “The Masked Singer” has made it easier to book stars. “Everyone knows it’s just a fun show, it’s not mean-spirited,” he says. “They love the idea of dressing up in these costumes. A lot of the celebrities have heard from other celebrities who’ve been on the show and had a positive experience. A lot of contestants called us up and said, ‘My kids want me to be on the show. Would you want me?’ For a lot of them, it’s a yes. It’s nice that they know what they’re getting into now. Compared to Season 1, where we had to tap dance and explain everything.”
With 18 new contestants, that means 18 new costumes, including Miss Monster, the Astronaut, the Banana, the Frog, the Iguana, the Kangaroo, the Kitty, the Llama, the Robot, the Swan, the Taco and the White Tiger.
“My favorites are Ms. Monster, I love Banana — now it’s not just animals, but we’re having actual food products as our contestants — and I love Robot,” Plestis says. “Robot is so cute. We’ve been toying with that for the past few seasons and I’m glad Robot came to life. … The whole idea is each season new costumes and new celebrities in the costume. It doesn’t mean costumes won’t come back for future seasons in some fashion, maybe in a clue package, maybe on the stage. So watch out for Season 3, you’ll see some of your favorites come back again.”
As for the show’s panelists, Jeong says he believed the group, along with host Nick Cannon, has also clicked in their roles. “There is a great chemistry among all of us, that we’re really comfortable with each other,” he says. “We all get our role on the show. Everyone has their own panel point of view now.” Added Plestis: “They’re all able to make jokes about one another. You’ll see a lot more of that in Season 3 as well.”
The success of “Masked Singer” couldn’t have come at a better time, as Fox reinvented itself last year as an independent network, in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of most other 21st Century Fox properties. After its huge first season, Fox managed to bring the show in-house as the centerpiece of its new Fox Alternative Entertainment shingle.
And now with the announcement of “Masked Dancer,” Fox hopes to extend that run. Plestis says the new show will include “shared DNA from ‘Masked Singer,’ but it’s going to be its own show. There will be some fresh elements within it that will make it stand out. We’re trying something different that we can’t put in the mother ship here. And try some different elements out and some new creative into that franchise.”
“There’s a whole different way to do the costumes in this,” he continues. “You have to be much more flexible. You still want to make sure we don’t make a costume that’s lesser quality than what we’ve been doing now. They’re still going to have a wow factor.”
But don’t expect to see a rush of more “Masked” spinoffs. Wade says he wants to strike “a balance”: “The two most obvious areas to do this are dancing and singing,” he says. “I have some other thoughts about how we can expand it. I think there’s variations within those genres you can do. But I don’t think I’ll stretch this out into cooking or fashion. But I think the guessing game is a fertile area to play with. There is something really fun about the game play of this show, and that’s an area I’m interested in expanding into other genres.”