Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
This is The Voice, version 4.0.
Last season, the NBC singing competition (returning Monday, 8 p.m. ET/PT) added coaches' steals and knockout rounds. In Season 4, the change will be even bigger with two new coaches, multi-platinum-selling Grammy winners Shakira and Usher, filling in for Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green.
How they all mesh is key to the success of The Voice, which has benefited from a strong chemistry among its coaching quartet from the start.
"I didn't realize until Cee Lo and Christina took this season off how much the show centers around our four personalities and the dynamic and chemistry that we have together. When you take two of them out, it's different," says Blake Shelton, who returns with fellow coach Adam Levine.
"Adam and I were sitting there going, 'Holy cow, it's like a total re-adjustment of how you interact,' and we didn't know how to do it at first. Once we got into the game, it got pretty exciting. It got really fun."
Change can refresh, but it's a gamble, especially with a successful formula. Major panel overhauls have not stemmed audience declines this season for two other singing contests, American Idol and The X Factor.
"The playbook says, 'Oh, it ain't broke, don't fix it. Why are you making changes?' That was a debate we had internally and with the producers," NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy says. "I just felt strongly that being dynamic in terms of our talent roster would be fantastic from an audience and storytelling point of view. Versions of the same interactions only take you so far."
Only the preliminary rounds have been taped so far, but executive producer Mark Burnett says the panel's chemistry is there and there's no newcomer vs. veteran rancor. "They're all very harmonious. In the blinds, it's kind of like a family at the holidays playing a board game. Everybody can get a little friendly heated in the competitiveness, but it's a family," he says.
He says the newcomers are "such fun, and they're so different. Usher is super, super cool (and) Shakira is so electric. ... She just emanates this light source. It's hard not to fall in love with her."
Aguilera and Green will be back, both Burnett and Telegdy say, although it's too soon to start talking beyond this season. Performers' careers are a factor in their availability: Aguilera is working on an album; Green has a Las Vegas show.
A risk that's working out well?
Levine acknowledges the risky element of change, but says the new dynamic is working out beautifully.
"Shakira is a firecracker and Usher's got a certain way about him that's very confident, very cocky, like myself. We'll have our fun. Blake is kind of in a category of his own because he's just this weirdo," Levine jokes, with the playful rivalry that's one of the show's charms. "It all snapped into place really quickly. We're having a lot of fun with it."
Usher, who helped launch Justin Bieber's career, sees the opportunity to raise the curtain on an artist development process that's usually behind the scenes.
"There's something magical that happens in small rooms that never gets to be seen until a show like this, all the lessons that I learned as a child traveling around, performing on small stages, big stages, understanding breath control and how to maneuver and work my voice," Usher says. "That didn't happen in an audience setting. It happened very intimately, so to have the ability to teach the world a little bit of what happens is really cool."
He has confidence - "I play the game to change the game" - but acknowledges he'll be learning as much as teaching. "Both Blake and Adam have won the show, so they know how it works. Me and Shakira are newcomers. We're 100% watching what has happened in the past, using what good is there and what new things organically come out during the exchange between us and our talent."
A coach's work can be nuanced, says Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira.
"Most of the contestants have great voices, so I'm not there to teach anyone how to sing," she says via e-mail. "I think the best thing I can do for them is share my experience, use my critical eye to help identify areas where they need improvement and be there to support them."
She adds: "I was really focused on finding unique voices: singers who could emit passion and emotion and leave you with a lasting impression. But truthfully, you really have to be willing to derail a little from your initial strategy, so you can be open to a moving performance and just believe in your gut."
George Varga, music critic for U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune), says change cuts both ways. "I think there's the obvious curiosity factor with two new (coaches) coming in. The inverse of that is there was a curiosity factor with Idol with the new judges, and that turned out to be a fairly sizable bomb," he says.
Varga favors The Voice qualitatively over Idol, but that could be a function of Voice's relative newness. "I think (the coaches) have offered expertise in a useful way, not all the time but certainly as often as not. But if the gauge would be the winners of the first three seasons, can anyone but the most diehard fan of that show name them?"
(Those would be Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul and Cassadee Pope. "I think Cassadee's chances of becoming a country star are through the roof," says Shelton, her Voice coach.)
Network in need of a boost
NBC could use some viewer curiosity. The network rose to the No. 1 ranking among young adults and No. 2 with all viewers in the fall, only to drop off a ratings cliff after The Voice (and Sunday Night Football) concluded its third season in December. In recent weeks, it often has ranked No. 4.
"I think we didn't realize how important (The Voice) was until it went away," says Brian Hughes, who specializes in audience analysis for ad firm Magna Global.
The Voice easily outpaced another fall singing competition, Fox's The X Factor. It also appeared to have a halo effect, helping shows that followed it, such as Revolution, Go On and The New Normal, he says. Both comedies have slumped since The Voice left, while Revolution returns Monday (10 ET/PT) after a three-month break.
With the ratings downswing, NBC's gamble of putting The Voice on twice in a single TV season could pay off, although there is the risk of oversaturation. Hughes expects a drop-off from the fall numbers (13.7 million, down 9% from post-Super Bowl-fueled Season 2), as other singing competitions have slipped, but still robust compared to other NBC programs.
The Voice also will be squaring off in its own "battle round" against the king of the singing contests, Idol, which is in its 12th season. Although the shows are on different nights, they're often compared because they're in the same genre.
Idol has won the two previous spring competitions, but Fox's former juggernaut is down this season and there is the chance The Voice could surpass it, at least in advertiser-coveted young adults.
The big question is whether Idol's big ratings drop is the result of "Idol fatigue or genre fatigue," says Brad Adgate, analyst for ad firm Horizon Media. But in the end, both Hughes and Adgate expect Idol to remain on top.
Burnett, Telegdy and The Voice's coaches downplay any competition, even praising Idol for its performance over the years. "I always say Idol is a venerable piece of television that people love," Telegdy says. "In many ways, it changed American TV. We consider ourselves a very different kind of show."
As they seek to differentiate their show, however, they deal some glancing blows.
Burnett talks about The Voice being able "to take the meanness out, there's no humiliation of these singers. There's also no meanness between the coaches."
Telegdy says he isn't bothered by Idol's status, one Idol producers and Fox executives often mention, as being the only music competition to create stars. Its biggest, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, come from its early years, when the show's ratings were higher and the music industry was less fragmented, he says.
"The fact that someone at American Idol thinks it's their job to point out how many records someone's sold is the last gasp of desperation I've ever heard," he says.
Making a star would be great, Levine says, but that shouldn't stop people from appreciating what the singers have done.
"Winning The Voice is a big deal or winning American Idol is a big deal. People become obsessed with the next step. To be quite frank, The Voice hasn't totally figured that out yet and I hope that we do," he says. "However, certain things deserve to be celebrated regardless of what happens after the fact. The truth is, there's been some amazing television and there's been some amazing singing, some incredibly compelling performances on our show and we're really happy with that. There's no need to prove ourselves to anybody."