Is the TV singing competition dead? American Idol’s demise earlier this week seems to offer a kind of finality. While “not the end of television as we know it,” John Doyle wrote at the Globe and Mail, it’s “a big step toward that.” Colleague Sonya Bell seemed to agree. Idol’s cancellation “signaled the end of an era.” Why? Because the Internet, probably. As Sonya rightly points out: “Talented teens don’t need American Idol anymore. Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube before he was old enough to audition.” Others since, like Shawn Mendes, have ridden 6-second Vine clips to stardom.
This is all surely correct. Television has changed a lot since Idol premiered in 2002, and the Internet star machine is beyond what most people realize, with YouTube the driving force in that regard (though Vine has worked its way into the celebrity-creating field lately). Last year, the New York Times published a revealing chart showing that, as American Idol went on, as its audience skewed older and older (from a median age of around 30 in 2002 to around 50 in 2013), its ratings generally declined (its peak being in its fifth season, when total viewership hovered around 15 million, and median viewer age was around 35 years old). It so happens that American Idol Season 5 aired in early 2006, not long after YouTube arrived on the scene. Michael McDonald-esque Taylor Hicks won that season – somehow.
And yet, if this is the rule – that we’ve all moved on from these musical talent shows – there must be an exception, and though it’s perhaps not a terribly compelling one, we might find it in the program whose success is charted just to the right of American Idol’s at the New York Times: NBC’s The Voice.
To be clear, The Voice has also seen a decline in viewership and an ageing audience demographic since it premiered in 2011 (though it still gets what can be considered good ratings, even in Canada, where last week’s two penultimate episodes combined for approximately 1.1 million viewers)*. Perhaps there are not many more seasons to be had, but for now, it goes on – and weirdly, without it ever having produced a bona-fide star.
Of all the things to know about The Voice, this is perhaps the one thing that’s most striking. Despite its popularity, nobody from The Voice has ever broken through into the mainstream in the same way Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or Chris Daughtry did after American Idol. When this phenomenon is noted elsewhere, the fault (if that’s what we can call it) generally lands on the fact that the show is designed to heavily focus on the judges. The Voice actually has two winners every season – whichever singer America votes through, and the judge who backed them. As Simon Cowell remarked last year in that same Times piece: “Who does better? The 'Voice' judges or the 'Voice' contestants?”
He’s right. The Voice spends as much time promoting its judges as it does its contestants. The real stars of the show are the four people in the chairs, who already happen to be famous. In this way, The Voice is essentially two reality show formats in one. It’s a music talent reality show while at the same time being a plain old celebrity reality show. While not as invasive or personal as a Kardashian program, The Voice still pushes to expose its judges’ personalities in at least two ways.
First, via their coaching sessions with the contestants – something American Idol never did, thereby keeping the judges at a cold distance, and making it more difficult for audiences to warm to a new face – the producers seek to show us how these four celebrity judges interact with the real people. It reinforces the notion that, not only are these celebrities friendly and approachable, but might talk to us in a very friendly way were we to meet them. In short, we feel like we know them better.
Second, and more blatantly, The Voice features performances by the judges – again, not something American Idol did**. Sometimes these performances occur with the contestants on their team, but even when it does, the reason we’re watching is for the celebrity we know, not the ones we have to work to create.
It’s this last point that might offer a few other reasons why The Voice has yet to produce a true star, and why American Idol quickly stopped producing them, too.
Both shows operate with viewer participation – they can’t actually exits without it. This precipitates immediacy, the idea that we must vote right now in order to register a choice. The Voice doubles down on this idea, encouraging viewers to, overnight, purchase their favourite contestant’s song on iTunes – more sales means more votes. In both cases this promotes viewer engagement in the short-term, which builds buzz and viewers each time (for a while), but ultimately fails to encourage long-term interest (there is another season coming up in a matter of a few short months, anyway).
Such concerted focus on purchasing single songs also exhausts people’s wallets. If and when someone from The Voice does finally come out with their own track, the question will always be: is it as good as the cover they recorded, and thus, will it be really worth my money? The answer, apparently, has generally been “no.” The obsession on the immediacy of single hits is perhaps also what helped kill off American Idol. It might not be a coincidence that all the stars American Idol created were mostly in the years before things like iTunes – the ultimate promoter of singles over albums, or, in other words, immediacy over sustained participation – became a staple of modern life.
Yet, this is instant gratification is exactly what might sustain The Voice – for a while. After all, its promise is different than American Idol’s. The latter promised viewers that it would create a mega-star – someone worthy of idolatry. The Voice, on the other hand, simply promises that you’ll hear some nice music in the company of some friendly celebrities who you’ll get to know better. In the end, it actually doesn’t matter that The Voice doesn’t produce a mainstream star – that's not really the point. Where American Idol conjured up images of creating a Madonna – someone with a sustained, major, career in music with real cultural impact – The Voice doesn’t bother with that kind of long-term vision. It is concerned only with now, or at best, tomorrow. Which is all people really care about, anyway.
* It’s worth noting that these numbers are strictly for the airings of NBC’s The Voice, and don’t include numbers for TVA’s La Voix, the Quebec version of the same show, which is massively popular, and just wrapped its third season. La Voix is a consistent ratings giant, garnering an average audience of more than 2.7 million viewers (the show airs three nights a week). To put that in some context, the first week of the second round of the NHL playoffs pulled in 2.3 million viewers in all of English Canada – also over three nights. The night Kevin Bazinet won the latest season of La Voix, 2.8 million people watched. By my count, that was good enough for second overall in the country, behind Big Bang Theory (3.8 million) and just ahead of NCIS (2.6 million).
And it only airs in Quebec.
** UPDATE: I've been told that, in later years, once American Idol's judges were actually still working singers, some of them did perform with the contestants. Still, it's worth noting that the celebrity appeal was never part of American Idol's original premise like it has been with The Voice – that came later, when the show was already in steep decline. The point remains that people are drawn to The Voice more because of the celebrity judges than they ever were with American Idol.