The Voice has a problem, and though the NBC ratings juggernaut beat American Idol in the ratings this season, it actually has something it could learn from the veteran reality show.
Judith Hill, arguably the most talented performer of the season, was sent packing last night, along with her fellow Team Adam member Sarah Simmons. (Though I predicted Danielle Bradbery will win The Voice in my post How Would the Girls of The Voice Do on American Idol, there’s no question in my mind Hill has shown the most artistry throughout the season, even if Monday’s performance was not her best.) It’s certainly not the first time a frontrunner on a singing competition has been eliminated earlier than expected — think Tamyra Gray, Jennifer Hudson, or Chris Daughtry on Idol — but it does highlight a major issue with The Voice: the live voting rounds feels like an afterthought, and it makes it difficult to connect with the contestants. I would argue that is why The Voice has thus far been unsuccessful in launching a successful music star, while American Idol, with it’s different trajectory, continues to churn out artists who sell records.
After three seasons, why hasn’t there been even one post-show success story from The Voice? Simple — the highlight of the season is not the crowning of the champion, but rather the blind auditions. I challenge you to name two of the three previous winners. Go on — try it. There is a thrill in watching the coaches select their teams without being able to actually see the performances of the singers, and then watching them fight each other for the chance to snatch up the performers with the most potential, that is not matched by the crowning of a champion. The coaches are charming, and they are the stars of the show — not the singers. As the show segues into the Battle Rounds, we learn a little bit more about the contestants, but the drama comes as much from the coach having to make a decision as it does from the performance itself. And I’ve never been totally clear on what purpose the Knockout Rounds serve, other than to cut each coach’s team in half.
What’s missing from these rounds is the opportunity for the audience at home to really connect with the singers themselves. By framing everything as “Team Adam” or “Team Blake,” we’re encouraged to feel more connected to the coaches then the performers. So by the time we finally reach the live shows, a certain kind of complacency, and lethargy, has set in. And with two singers eliminated each week, it feels less like an exciting build to the finale than a rushed end to the season. The ratings bear this out — the numbers peak at the beginning of the season, drop slightly as the show moves into the Battle Rounds, and then take a steep dive when the live shows begin. People start checking out.
This doesn’t have to be the case. On American Idol, the auditions, “Hollywood Week” and semifinal performances are all in place to build to the moment when the Top 12 (or 13 or 10 or whatever it is in the given season) perform live each week for America’s vote. That last phase of the competition is the most important, and takes up the largest chunk of the season. Over those final weeks, the judges take a backseat and the singers really start to establish themselves as artists, and create a connection with an audience. Everything builds to the finale, and the announcement of the winner. By the time the competition gets to the final weeks, the audience feels more invested than ever. That investment translates into a fanbase that will carry over to a post-show career.
So what could The Voice learn from American Idol to increase the audience’s investment level? They can start with making the live shows feel less anticlimactic. By having each coach start with less team members (perhaps just eight), keeping the Battle Rounds, losing the Knockout Rounds, and then having just one contestant eliminated each week of the live shows, the audience will have a greater chance to invest in the contestants. The producers made a crucial adjustment between the first and second seasons of The Voice in allowing singers from any team to be eliminated (as opposed to a member of each team). That helped in making it feel more like an individual competition, which, since there’s just one winner, it is. But there’s more work to be done on really letting each singer stand on his or her own, separate from whoever’s team they are on.
And here’s another thought — though theme weeks have sunk American Idol in past seasons (no more Burt Bacharach!!), the live shows on The Voice feel too unfocused. Having a way to judge the contestants against each other, to make it about the singers themselves (instead of about the coaches), is essential, and interesting themes might be the way to do it.
There have been a lot of really talented singers on both shows this season, and I’ve really enjoyed watching both. And I understand that a lot of the appeal of The Voice is how much of the coach’s personality is infused throughout the season. But if The Voice doesn’t start making some adjustments, it will continue to lose great singers like Judith Hill, and will not be able to create successful post-show careers. And that would be not living up to its potential.
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