Cee Lo Green
Even Carson Daly was suspicious of The Voice's bright red swivel chairs.
On NBC's new singing competition, things kick off with those chairs and blind auditions. Four celebrity coaches sit listening with their backs to the contestants. Should they like what they hear, they slam down on a large button and their chairs swivel to the front. This means they want to guide that contestant through the competition, helping them with everything from their song choices to their style.
Daly, the late-night talk show host and former MTV veejay, first thought it might be "gimmicky" but ultimately found it to be "a great idea in an American Idol world."
Why judging is a "dirty word" on NBC's The Voice
"Young people seem to be so enamored with just becoming famous," Daly says. "This immediately takes all of that out. Here, you need skill. You need to be an artist that established artists want to help mold."
And there's the difference: The Voice, adapted from a massively popular Dutch format, aims not to take on Idol in its own game, but to elevate the game itself. Rather than leaving the contestants to plod along, choosing ill-suited songs or worse, the show enlists its coaches — Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton — to mentor the hopefuls. And in a unique twist, the contestants will cherry pick their coach should more than one of them swivel forward.
"It's a very nostalgic approach, you know, before video killed the radio star," Green says of the show's concept. "I missed out on a few people. I'm still a big fan of some, even if they didn't pick me, though. No hard feelings at all."
"You've got contestants who, five minutes before, never thought they'd be in the same room as Blake, Adam, Christina and Cee-Lo," executive producer Mark Burnett says. "Now, they have to say, 'Well, Christina, what can you do for me?' It's like they're interviewing them. It's fascinating television."
Cee Lo Green on why he turned down The X Factor: It "wasn't distinctive enough
But will audiences be fatigued by Idol? From a ratings standpoint, twice-weekly airings of Idol remain dominant by a large margin, and The Voice arrives while Idol still has five weeks to go.
NBC executives weren't always so convinced. Last summer, Burnett and the network's head of reality programming, Paul Telegdy, began developing a music show "inspired by — and I can't believe I've saying this — an Apprentice task in which Sharon Osbourne and Bret Michaels coached a young country singer," Telegdy says. "What was interesting was watching people with experience really getting into the process with a newcomer. Not just standing around a piano."
But the network was loathe to hear ideas for an Idol competitor. "Previous management was skeptical. Everyone looks at you like you've sprouted a third head if you say you want to do another singing competition show," Telegdy says. "I couldn't sell my own music show internally." Not until, that is, he received a tape of a show called The Voice of Holland.
The vibe of the show is immediately distinct from Idol. According to all involved, producers of The Voice were uninterested in casting anyone who couldn't win. "Finding really bad people to make comedy, that's been done over and over," Burnett says. "It clearly works very well, but our concept was: There's no one bad. There's only very good and great."
This isn't to say that every contestant will get the coaches to turn around. "In reality, there were times when no one turned around," Daly says. "There were people who were not great, but it wasn't our M.O. to show the train wreck. ... At the same time, the producers also weren't like, 'Let's pick this guy, and everyone will freak out when the chairs turn!'
"I was watching Gary Busey the other night on Celebrity Apprentice [also executive produced by Burnett] and I know how well those kind of shows do and it almost makes me nervous because we don't do that," Daly continues. "But there are shows like So You Think You Can Dance, and it sort of reminds me of that vibe in the sense that it's earnest. It's authentic and people are really out there doing their thing."
Check out photos of The Voice
That good will was reason enough for Levine to sign on. "The music industry in general is going through some weird metamorphosis. I thought this could be a new vehicle that could break new people out into the universe," the Maroon 5 frontman says. "The coaches on this show, I respect so much." (They're current, too. All four were at the Grammys this year; Green won the best urban/alternative performance prize for his single "F--- You," Shelton and Levine were nominees and Aguilera performed during the tribute to Aretha Franklin.)
"If our chairs don't turn around, it wasn't because they're God-awful," Levine says. "And when we face them afterward, we make sure to explain that, most of the time, it just wasn't the right moment. ... It's really like a microcosm of what the industry is about. It's so about just the right situation occurring. It's all about timing. That's kind of what this is."
The blind audition rounds, shot in March, are followed by weeks of mentoring. The 32 contestants received guidance on everything from "song choice, styling, attitude working the stage, selling the song" according to Green, whose own team of eight is a diverse roster that includes a country singer and a twin duo. "The Voice is more like executive-producing and A&R as opposed to eliminating and [finding an] X factor, you know?"
Check out today's news
"Actually, watching Christina... I didn't know how much she'd be on board when the cameras weren't rolling, she really was 150 percent into working with the eight people she chose," Daly says. "It's really cool TV to see how all four of these famous people let their guards down and let perfect strangers trying to be artists into their world."
The mentoring sessions are followed by the battle rounds, in which the coaches narrow their teams by pitting them against each other in pairs in an all-out sing-off. After that, the final 16 face America's vote.
NBC's The Voice may wind up stealing some of the thunder from Simon Cowell's forthcoming The X Factor, a singing competition that launches in the fall and in which, similarly, the judges also serve as mentors for the contestants. But Telegdy says The Voice should be able to stand as separate from both X Factor and Idol. "This wasn't an aggressive move against Idol," he says. "I look at it as the football season overlapping with another sports season. We'll take our chances."
Daly also believes there's room. "If you like Idol, you'd probably like The Voice. I think it's a richer journey looking into the music business."
The Voice premieres Tuesday at 9/8c on NBC. Will you watch?