Apr 17, 2013
The Voice: Australia 2013 – earplugs optional
Once again the country is swept up in the hysteria of the biggest show on TV for a second season, and it’s not My Kitchen Rules (MKR).
The Voice has become the top rating show in Australia, leaving its nearest rival, MKR, a distant second. Still at the ‘blind auditions’ stage, yet the show has already peaked. On Sunday 14th April, over 2.8 million people across the nation (including rural areas) tuned in compared to 1.5 million for MKR which had previously being achieving average nightly ratings of nearly 2 million. But cooking shows aside, what makes The Voice any different to the once dominating Idol franchise? What makes it so unique, and it’s not because the judges wear the same clothes every episode!
The set design is simple: a small, intimate studio decked out in bright red. The interior borders on tacky as if inspired by the 80s. The judges’ turning chairs look like a super-charged version of the captain’s chair from Star Trek and I can’t help but feel dizzy every time they turn back and forth every five minutes. However, the show’s concept of focusing on the singer’s voice, not appearance, is original and novel. But the winning ingredient to the show’s successful formula is its judges.
On Idol, the judging panel always had an arrogant Englishman. On the American and UK versions it was Simon Cowell. The audience loved to hate him, but he was balanced with a kind-hearted female and a grounded music producer as the other judges. This dynamic generated controversy and mixed viewer emotions but most importantly it got ratings. However, audiences seem to have grown tired of Idol, but not of music talent series. And what makes The Voice so different is how the judges come across.
Contrary to Idol, all Voice judges appear friendly, supportive, sympathetic and very passionate about music. The show stresses constantly in its promos and ‘off-stage takes’ the judges talking intensively about the contestants and enthusiasm to ‘make dreams happen’. They shower the contestants with love, confidence and self-belief – all a load of tripe! All this sugary, touchy-feely ‘love’ feels fake. Their behaviour always comes across as scripted and lacking genuine sincerity. They play the role of ‘good guys’ – there’s nothing they can do wrong for the audience to hate them. This is very different to Idol in which each judge treats the contestant depending on their personality, which was exaggerated as well. Yet, The Voice judges’ personality and repour is what attracts viewers. They wanted a change from the old sarcastic, fork-tongued judge stereotype.
Each judge is playing a character. Although they all share that ‘show me love mentality, each is unique.
Seal: mature, respected, wise and the most experienced singer on the panel. The father-figure of the group who regularly ‘fights’ with Joel, the son-figure, over contestants.
Delta: beautiful, oversensitive, sympathetic and the only female judge. Wearing her revealing black jumpsuit she constantly sways to the music.
Joel: the punk-rocker who’s a man-boy at heart. Young, competitive, playful, the audience can’t resist his boyish antics, especially towards Father Seal.
Ricky: the ethic favour. More experience and successful than Delta or Joel but takes a backseat to Seal, the senior judge.
They all put on entertaining and animated performances. The viewer is teased with great anticipation as the judges’ hands hover over the buzzer. Tension builds and excitement broods as the song comes to an end. But the drama doesn’t stop there. Then the judges plead to the contestant, sweet-talking them into choosing them as their coach. But it doesn’t end there. Then we have the ‘stand offs’ where judges ‘come close to blows’ strutting the stage like matadors fighting over the contestant.
The relationships between judges is one of good-nature, mutual respect and fun. They put on displays of playfulness and competitiveness, yet they’re all meant to be good mates who admire each other. Even during the ‘off-camera’ moments, the judges stand around talking about how ‘intense’ the performance was or how remarkable the contestant is as a person.
When they blindly listen to the song we see their passion as they become ‘one with the music’. Ricky looks like he’s conducting an invisible symphony or playing the violin whilst Delta sways like a sleepy drunk. Then we have the ‘secret moments’. This is where the judge ‘whispers’ words of encouragement to the contestant, meant only between them, but is recorded for the audience to hear. If the show is truly about honest sincerity then I’m not seeing it.
The structure of each episode is similar to most other talent shows, but The Voice has incorporated some very interesting features to heighten the emotional tension. As in all talent shows, every contestant has a ‘story’. Whether it’s about a difficult childhood or not being born a blonde everyone has a story to tell. This story then becomes part of their journey towards achieving their musical dreams. But it’s this ‘journey’ concept The Voice has managed to turn into a theatrical experience. As each contestant goes through the stage doors they make the long walk into the dead-quiet studio where we can hear their nervous deep breathing. This physiologically component of ‘the journey’ is perfectly captured on camera where we just don’t see their anxiety but feel it.
But something’s missing. The Voice has left out a core ingredient of any reality TV show – freaks. When other talent programs do their auditions they show the good, the bad and the ugly, whilst The Voice has cut this out. Instead, the show presents the judges with singers who have gone through a selection process: voices heard, personalities analysed and marketability determined beforehand. The contestants are guaranteed to be liked and well-received by viewers, regardless how far they go in the competition. I suppose The Voice should be credited for not lowering themselves to what most reality-shows tend to do – exploit the disillusioned.
The show’s ability to market and sell itself is another great feat. It’s amazing to think people are willing to purchase contestants’ performances on iTunes and they’re not even famous yet. There are two reasons: one, people already have the original song in their collection but liked how the contestant sang it; and two, they don’t have this song in their collection but want the contestant’s version. Regardless, this provides the show a source of revenue in addition to its lucrative endorsements, including KFC. It needs this income as it does not have the call-to-vote system of other talent shows. And despite whether the contestant wins or becomes famous, the show is making money off them!
Another strategy of the Channel Nine Network to maintain the show’s ratings is the capitalising on contestants’ personal stories. On Channel Nine’s popular consumers’ program, A Current Affair, it showcased Harrison Craig, a contestant who overcame his stutter through singing. Then a day later, there was the story about Caterina Torres, who was the cause of the ‘stand-off’ between Seal and Joel. It’s cheap, cheesy but it generates and maintains interest in the show which is also supported by hype via social media. Then there are the countless gossip magazine publications week after week adding ‘controversy’ and intrigue. This publicity builds the program’s profile and helps maintains its multimillion viewer ratings. With an average of roughly 2 million viewers a night, it seems to be working as MKR has very quickly lost its number one position for the Seven Network.
Unfortunately, song contests will never go away. Just like a phoenix, after The Voice has crashed and burned, another will rise up from the ashes because everyone loves singing contests…and jumpsuits!