Before the red chairs, before the Adam Levine-Blake Shelton bromance and before The Voice took the country by storm, NBC was home to another hot vocal competition show: The Sing-Off.
Premiering in 2009 as a four-night special holiday event, The Sing-Off became a surprise smash thanks to its mix of strong a cappella performing groups and heartwarming lack of fierce competition. Then came The Voice in April 2011, and after The Sing-Off's expanded weekly format failed to catch on that fall, it went off the air (seemingly) never to be heard from again.
Two years later, The Sing-Off is back following The Voice on Monday nights (9/8c, NBC), with none-other-than Voice executive producer Mark Burnett behind the wheel. "People are looking for a kinder, more upbeat, positive outlook on their lives and in what they watch on television and The Voice has shown that," he tells TVGuide.com. "Compared to other previous singing shows, The Voice is very upbeat and The Sing-Off is the ultimate in upbeat."
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That's not all the two shows have in common. In addition to new judge Jewel, who joins returning judges Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman, and host Nick Lachey, the new season borrows several elements from The Voice. For one, Burnett brought in the same casting team he's worked with on The Voice to recruit what might be the most diverse, and talented, season yet. "They're not individuals, they come in groups, so you need to be able to easily identify and root for who they are, which we achieved." Adds Folds: "There are a few really outstanding groups, but I think what really was unique about this season is I didn't know who was going to win."
How these groups will advance to the next round is also similar. Like the famous battle rounds on The Voice, in which two singers compete by singing the same song together, the two bottom groups of the night will perform the same tune and only one will survive. "It really fits in with the theme of the show and the name of the show," Burnett says of "The Ultimate Sing-Off" segment.
One of the more controversial changes — at least behind the scenes — will have the judges mentor the groups before they perform, similar to how the coaches on The Voice advise the singers on their respective teams. "My fear was that I didn't want to be involved in any way in the development of the groups other than being a completely innocent ear. I've always insisted on not hearing any of the music before we tape the show," Folds says. "But as we've started doing it, I love these groups and now I am a sucker for working with them."
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Both Burnett and Folds insist the similarities end there. "I don't have anything against the other shows; I just think they're really different. When you make it, you have to understand that," Folds says. "You have to figure out how to dress up and be acceptable, which I think Mark completely understands. The thing that I was impressed with is he immediately understood the relationship of people singing together."
That focus on the performances, and specifically on the show's a cappella element, is something Folds says is deeper this season than in years past. "People watch the show and, 15 seconds in, they forget that it's not instruments. It's so good that they forget and they take it for granted. You have to keep reminding people that these aren't musical instruments because people don't have that kind of framework and it's more thrilling for them to understand that," Folds says. "I don't always think we've been successful in relaying why to people. ... Now I think anyone who turns the TV off at the end of the show will say, 'OK I understand why they did that.'"
For all of The Sing-Off's changes this season, it's this embrace of a cappella that ensures The Sing-Off will never become too reminiscent of its sister singing competition show. "Mark has got a very keen understanding. He knows that The Voice is a completely different show," Folds says. "If he wants me to mentor or sit in a big red chair or whatever, I'll do it. As long as these groups are the focus of the show, I'm happy."
The Sing-Off's new season premieres on Monday at 9/8c on NBC.