More than its big red chairs or its talented contestants, The Voice has become known for its dynamic team of coaches. So, what happens when you mess with that chemistry? That's the question facing Season 4 of the hit NBC singing competition as it premieres on Monday at 8/7c. Gone are Cee Lo Green's hilarious pet sidekicks (KIT Purrfect) and Christina Aguilera's colorful wardrobe. In their places are R&B hitmaker Usher and international songstress Shakira, who will work alongside — and compete against — returning favorites Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
The addition of not one, but two new coaches is The Voice's biggest change since its April 2011 debut. "The playbook says you don't make cast changes," NBC's president of alternative and late night programming, Paul Telegdy, says. However, it became apparent that show would need to add new blood when the network ordered two seasons for the current 2012-2013 TV schedule. The hope, Telegdy says, was to "have some variety and to extend the family of who's a coach on The Voice so that we can avoid the kind of problems that arise out of cast changes on the shows."
Telegdy is referring to American Idol, which added three new judges this season after the much-publicized exits of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler (who themselves joined only two seasons earlier). Additionally, The X Factor just lost coaches Britney Spears and L.A. Reid after firing Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger at the end Season 1. "Very quickly, the story is not a creative one, it's just, 'Oh they had to make changes because J. Lo wouldn't sign a deal,' and we wanted to sort of avoid being cornered in that way," Telegdy says. Hence the announcement in September that Green and Aguilera would sit out Season 4 to focus on their respective careers, and that Usher and Shakira would keep their seats warm.
Usher was a strong candidate from the start, thanks particularly to his mentoring of Bieber. "The new business model in music is almost what Usher did with Bieber," host and executive producer Carson Daly says. "When the record companies all consolidated ... it became about artists helping other artists out, discovering and developing. There's a little bit of that model that we take a page from. So Usher was an obvious choice."
While Usher is already well-known to viewers thanks to his two decade-long career, Shakira is more of a fresh face — something that Daly predicts will work in her favor. "I do think it reminds me of Blake Season 1. Everybody knew he was a country guy, but nobody really knew him. He's had the biggest bounce of everybody," he says. "I think Shakira, this TV season, will be that girl crush. Once she's on TV for a few episodes and people start to feel out her vibe, I think they're going to get it. She does do a lot more than shake her hips."
Behind the scenes, the producers are excited to show new sides of both Shakira and Usher. "You only really know them so far from music videos, performing on stage and maybe a couple of interviews," executive producer Mark Burnett says. Adds Telegdy: "The great thing about a show like this is you can't really hide the reality of who people are. Their character comes through."
Daly admits he was hesitant about the panel switcheroo, but he says it didn't take long for the new coaches to show their true colors. "[Usher] pulls the [Justin] Bieber card, and when he pulls the Bieber card, you know he's really fighting. Then when Shakira reminds everyone that she's a pregnant Colombian, that's her Bieber card," he says. "It just took a little while, but it was great."
However, the question remains whether The Voice can turn any of its contestants into stars the way it has with its coaches? The show has spawned a No. 1 single ("Moves Like Jagger" by Levine's group Maroon 5 featuring Aguilera) and made Shelton into a household name, but has failed to produce any chart-topping talent the way Idol has with Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and, most recently, Phillip Phillips. "Do we need, or would we like, to have our moment — our artist that really breaks out? Of course," Daly says. "Will it be vital probably to the ultimate longevity of the show in its macro run? Probably. Maybe not. The show is also endlessly entertaining as is."
Given that The Voice was already renewed for a fifth season back in September, the question now becomes which of the six judges will report back for duty. Will Aguilera and Green definitely return? Can they be paired with newbies Usher and Shakira, instead of Levine and Shelton? Burnett, for one, isn't worried. "It's not a producing thing, it's a schedule thing. Any four of the six would be great," he says.
Although much of the focus going into Season 4 has been the new talent behind the chairs, executive producers still put the singing hopefuls first and hope viewers do the same. "This is about the contestants," Daly says. "The show is greater than any one coach."
The Voice premieres on Monday at 8/7c on NBC. Are you excited for the new coaches?