While there's no longer a question as to whether or not "American Idol" can survive without Simon Cowell (it's doing just fine if you haven't noticed), Cowell's highly anticipated "X Factor" isn't the only upcoming series attempting to get a piece of the musical competition ratings pie. Tonight, in fact, NBC launches its latest entry, "The Voice," which is based on the popular "The Voice of Holland" series in the Netherlands. "The Voice" differs from "Idol" in that it starts the competition with four coaches - pop songstress Christina Aguilera, singer/rapper Cee Lo Green, singer Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and country star Blake Shelton - merely listening and picking contestants without seeing their faces in order to each build a team of singers that will eventually battle each other to the finish.
And while that's a novel way of launching the series, what comes after the contestants are chosen by the coaches? How does the talent pool get whittled down to just one winner who takes the title of "The Voice" as well as a recording contract and $100,000? And how well (or not) does the chemistry of these four very different superstars gel onstage? To find out the answers to these questions and much more, our Jim Halterman talked to Executive Producer Mark Burnett who explained bringing the show to the States as well as why he thinks the show could unveil talents along the line of "Idol" alums Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson.
Jim Halterman: Can you tell me the origins of the show and your involvement with it?
Mark Burnett: From a background point of view, Paul Telegdy, [EVP of reality programming] at NBC and myself were working to come up with a talent show and we wanted to have teams of singers paired with celebrities but we hadn't figured out the element of it and then Paul called me one day and said 'Go online and look up 'The Voice of Holland.'' I did and we called each other back and said 'I wish I'd thought of that because that's what I was thinking!' What it was specifically were these auditions which you do with the voice only and the backs turned and what nobody had seen before is if more than one coach pushes the button [to choose the singer], now the power shifts to those aspiring to be stars, these unknown singers, who are questioning superstars. 'Why should I join your team?' It was so different and just think of it... these people, five minutes before they perform, they say 'Am I really going to be in the same room as Christina Aguilera, Blake, Cee Lo and Adam?' and then a few minutes later they're saying 'Why should I join your team?' and 'What can you do for me?'
JH: Did you make any adjustments to the concept or format when you brought it here?
MB: It's really, really worked in Holland so it's straightforward in 'The Voice of Holland' format. It's a very high-rated show in Holland and it works and the reason is there is no negative judging because everyone who shows up, at worst, is really good. And at best, is great. And so there's a big difference between good and great but there's no deliberate comedy from bringing in terrible singers. 'American Idol' has done that so well - and I think 'American Idol' is such a great show, by the way - and they've done that so well over the years so there's none of that. And the coaches also didn't want to be a part of that. None of them would want to be criticizing someone on television. So when they realized the worst they were going to get was pretty good, it made the drama go into not criticizing people but it turned into 'Who's the best singer to join my team of eight?' and in the end maybe the audience will select them as 'The Voice.'
JH: Did you have concerns about the chemistry of the coaches once you brought them together for the show? They're such different personalities and you can't plan on chemistry.
MB: Yeah, you can't. Using movie terms, when a director sets a cast in a movie, they don't know what the chemistry will be like with the actors. In this case with this type of art form, you don't know that but what I did know is that all four of them are really smart people and competitive and all four coaches are at the top of their game. The hardest part of me, obviously, were schedules but everybody made it work. Everyone moved dates around to accommodate. As for the chemistry question, I did arrange a meeting where the coaches could all initially get together in a room and discuss things and there were managers and agents but what I decided was that the four of them should go out and have fun and they did. They all went out to dinner as a group and I think that really helped them get informed a little bit on a personal level. They've all got really funny personality and the three boys definitely got into the crass humor and Christina becomes the voice of reason. It's really, really fun. Of the coaches, Christina has the Mom role, which keeps it fun.
JH: Can you talk about the show itself after the coaches choose their singers?
MB: After that, the blind auditions are designed so each coach will end up with eight singers with their team. There will be two weeks of two 2-hour shows, and then week 3 starts the battle rounds and there are four weeks of battle rounds. What happens in battle rounds is each coach narrows their team of eight down to four. They have to narrow it down by half and the way they do that is they pair up their singers and put them on the stage together singing the same song at the same time in different choruses and they battle in a sing-off. You can actually see who has gone from just a voice to a performance with confidence and based on that performance, the coach chooses which ones stay on their team and which ones goes home.
JH: And at that point, that's 100% the choice of the coach, right?
MB: Yes, the coach gets to choose who's on the bench and who's playing. When there's four left, the final four of each coach goes into the live shows.
JH: So we will get that emotional factor of the coaches having to send people home.
MB: There's also the pressure of instruction. They're trying to put the best singers forward for the live shows so that's their responsibility!
JH: One thing I saw in the clips was the country singer and everyone turns around except Christina and she has to justify why she didn't turn around. Do the coaches ever come off in a negative light because they don't choose someone?
MB: There's no negative. Christina just felt that she didn't know how to best mentor a country singer. Christina knows who she is and her career and where she can provide the most value. On the other hand, a lot of coaches cross genres. You see Cee Lo completely out of his genre and Blake out of his genre and it's quite tense at times but it's fun and it's a strong rivalry between the coaches. In the end, their mission is to select the best four that will end up in those live shows
JH: The show is called 'The Voice' but what about 'the look.' People like Susan Boyle have taught us that someone with a great voice may not have a traditional look. How much of that comes to play in the show, Mark?
MB: There's certainly some stuff with that but they're making their decisions based solely on voice and I think all the coaches loved that. They all mentioned how great it was to just do it with their ears and just to make their choices based on their hearing. And, in going forward in the mentoring and the battle rounds, before you get those pairings on the stage, the coaches work with them to compare them and you've got great moments.
JH: What has surprised you personally from the whole experience and the process started?
MB: I was surprised by the incredible quality of talent of the singing and, as I said, there are some good, very good and great singers. I'm telling you, singing shows have their greats in the past. Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson... and there are greats on this show. There are quite a few greats and the other thing is the playfulness of the judges. Their chemistry and their playfulness and, also, they are competitive. They really want the best team and they want their team members to win.
"The Voice" premieres tonight at 9:00/8:00c on NBC.