Battle of TV talent shows

The Voice is a big hit here, but will the British version outstrip the X Factor in the ratings wars? Ed Power on another John de Mol creation.

A GADZILLIONAIRE several times over, it takes something special to cause Simon Cowell sleepless nights. But you wouldn’t bet against the X Factor supremo suffering the occasional bout of insomnia lately as the franchise he’s spent years building is blown out of the water by a snotty Dutch upstart.

The brash new boy in town, The Voice is a globe-spanning uber-sensation from the Amsterdam production company that more or less invented modern reality television in 1997 with Big Brother.

The brainchild of Endemol founder John de Mol, The Voice has challenged X Factor in the ratings in the United States whilst its Irish version, The Voice of Ireland, has achieved what many previously considered impossible. With a respectable budget and a clever format, even RTÉ can pull off decent reality telly. It’s like The All Ireland Talent Show — with its bizarre lineup of google-eyed step dancers and psychedelic uilleann pipers — never happened.

Now, the Voice of Ireland, featuring Kian Egan, Niall ‘Bressie’ Breslin, Sharon Corr and Brian Kennedy, has progressed to the live shows, in the UK, the BBC, having won a protracted bidding war, is about to debut a its version of The Voice with an eye-watering judging panel comprising Black Eyed Pea Will.i.am, Jessie J, Tom Jones and The Script’s Danny O’Donoghue. At a moment when last season’s X Factor winners Little Voice would have a job getting arrested if they hijacked a school bus, the lesson is clear: The Voice has commandeered the spotlight and Cowell and company may have to make peace with finishing second.

What has made The Voice such a phenomenon? Though X Factor brought big budget glamour it, too, was merely the latest in a series of glorified karaoke sing-offs (Pop Idol, Pop Stars, Irish Popstars, etc).

As with everything Endemol produces, it’s down to an ingeniously tweaked format and a focus on music instead of horror show auditions from people who ought never be put front of a camera.

De Mol conceived of The Voice expressly as an X Factor ‘killer’. Like a lot of viewers, he’d come to see Cowell’s baby as formulaic and predictable. Each season, dozens of tuneless squawkers would line up for their ritual humiliation. Meanwhile, the minority who could hold a note graduated to the latter half of the season, vying to outdo one another with their karaoke readings of the great pop songbook.

“The trick that worked for many years — a professional jury killing a totally untalented 16 year old boy who thinks he is Michael Jackson — started to show weak spots,” de Mol said recently. “People foresaw the tricks and the structure.”

Initially, de Mol didn’t have a clear idea what he wanted his post-X Factor programme to look like. He just knew what he didn’t want it to be. So he set a team of producers to work, giving them a year to originate a new format. The result was The Voice.

The biggest difference is the audition process. The judges can’t see the contestants and so are assessing on singing prowess alone.

Meaning that, if another Susan Boyle were to turn up, she wouldn’t be laughed at before flooring everyone with her singing — the judges’ first impression would be based entirely on her way around a tune.

Conversely, Jedward would probably be turfed out day one.

The power dynamic between contestant and judge is also more equal. If two judges want the same singer for their team, the contestant gets to choose. In America, this has produced the surreal vista of Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine pleading with unknowns to side with them. Plus there’s a gladiatorial element as hopefuls are required to best one another in a ‘sing-off’ to make the panel’s final selection. On paper, all of that suggests a hodgepodge of a show. In fact, it works incredibly slickly, arguably making for a more engaging and unpredictable experience than X Factor.

This emphasis on unearthing great singers rather than humiliating random members of the public was a key attraction for the production company behind the Irish version, Screentime Shin Awil. “What caught my attention when I first saw this and then when it was first pitched to me by John De Mol’s company was this unique twist on process, where the emphasis is put on the actual talent,” said Screentime’s Larry Bass. “It is no longer a travelling freak show. It’s about truly talented people. Unless you’re talented, you don’t even get selected to go in front of the camera … the aim is to find, not just a great Irish talent, but an Irish talent that could go on to global success.”

What’s most impressive is the speed with which The Voice has taken off. The Voice of Holland debuted in 2010 and was an instant ratings monster. Desperately seeking a reality music franchise of its own, America’s NBC, working through Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, licensed the formula a year later, installing Aguilera, Levine, rapper Cee-Lo Green and country star Blake Shelton as judges. Soon local editions were popping up all over: Ukraine, Mexico, Belgium, Australia, India and Germany (where Kerry singer Rea Garvey is a judge). By the time RTE announced it would air a version the show had spread, contagion-style around the globe.

Format aside, what distinguishes The Voice from its rivals is the calibre of judges. With the arguable exception of X Factor’s Gary Barlow, these panels tend to be made up of stars whose best days are a fast-dimming memory. The Voice, in contrast, plumbs for contemporary super-stars. Will.i.am’s fee for participating in the UK edition is rumoured to be north of half a million sterling (Danny O’Donoghue will receive a reported £100,000). And while she may not be the uber-star of a decade ago, in the US, nobody would argue that Aguilera is past her ‘best-by’ date. Even the Irish version reaches big: Kian Egan arrived at one judging session straight off a plane and from Westlife’s sell-out tour of China. Were he to put his band The Blizzards back together, Bressie could be packing venues across the country within the week.

How long can we expect The Voice to rule the pop roost? Well, X Factor reigned unchallenged for a good seven years. And it, in turn, supplanted the Pop Idol format created by ex-Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller. One thing is certain: with the BBC version now underway, the phenomenon is only getting started.

Expect to be hear a lot, lot more of The Voice in the months ahead.

* The Voice UK starts on BBC 1 on Saturday night, at 7pm.


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