Assault on ‘American Idol’

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American Idol’s dominance in the talent-show sphere has been, for the most part, unchallenged, but Mark Burnett is hoping to change that in April — or at least dent it a bit — when NBC premieres The Voice.

The series’ premise is basically the same — a natural talent gets a chance to be heard and discovered — but the process of finding that talent has been fine-tuned. Rather than cattle-call-style auditions at 20,000-seat arenas, an A&R team for Voice was deployed with a very specific singing star in mind.

The Voice is looking for individual singers that are ARTISTS, preferably no singer-songwriters or divas,” read an e-mail from a Voice scout in January, as the team was setting up one-on-one appointments. “We got plenty of both, so that didn’t work,” Burnett scoffs. (To be fair, the show also held an open call.)

The show’s concept was imported from Europe, where The Voice of Holland draws a healthy 3 million viewers (the Netherlands’ population is 16.5 million), and as the latest David to Idol’s Goliath, it is prepping to rival the ratings behemoth directly (the show premieres April 26 as Idol gears up for its final shows).

Star power? Check. Christina Aguilera, Cee-Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine have signed on as celebrity coaches (“Judges,” Levine says, “is kind of a dirty word around here”) in a reality-show twist that gives a nod to Simon Cowell’s The X Factor (the contestants choose a mentor with whom to work, pitting the celebrities against one another). Host with music cred? Hired. MTV and late-night vet Carson Daly will fill the emcee role. Reality-TV pedigree? Covered with Burnett.

After 13 weeks of competition, the winner receives a $100,000 recording contract with Universal Republic (a paltry sum compared with X Factor’s promised $5 million deal) and a management deal with Sanctuary Management Group, which represents Fleetwood Mac and Velvet Revolver (it will take a 25% cut, according to a source).

But though the show’s producers and stars are making every effort to differentiate Voice from Idol, mainly emphasizing its format — auditions where the coaches can’t see the singer; who advances is based purely on their singing voice — it’s not cowering from the primetime powerhouse, either. Declared Daly during Voice’s first press conference: “The level of talent is leaps and bounds beyond the winners of any other competition show.”

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Even if that talent pool includes a former Idol semifinalist. Burnett confirms that Season 2’s Frenchie Davis, who has starred on Broadway since her Idol disqualification for racy photos in 2003, made it past the first round with Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” as did an alumnus of CBS’ short-lived Rock Star, another Burnett vehicle. “It’s a meritocracy,” Burnett says. “It doesn’t matter where you came from. If you won American Idol and you wanted to try this, too, you could.”

The team’s braggadocio is bold for an underdog series. After all, with Idol still drawing 22 million viewers an episode and X Factor about to launch its U.S. auditions (not to mention NBC’s America’s Got Talent still going strong and Nigel Lythgoe’s new country show CMT’s Next Superstar kicking off April 8),  the field of talent shows is crowded.

Daly’s confidence comes from the concept. “What struck me is that it’s a mentoring show,” he says. “It immediately took away all of the negativity that I’ve seen on a lot of those shows. I did not see the William Hung novelty in this format. In fact, it’s sort of shunned.”

It’s a view shared by the coaches. “They understand the power of television and how they can use their success to actually help people,” Daly says. “That help comes from being nonjudgmental and not from a place of marketing what you look like.”

The production has had its share of hiccups, however. A taping in mid-March went so off schedule that more than 150 audience members were paid $50 each to go home. Still, the show has a good six weeks to work out the kinks as Voice is expected to go live at the end of May. Worth noting: Idol’s finale is scheduled for May 25.

Another case of Idol’s sloppy seconds? “There’s room for more than one music show,” Burnett says. “My whole career has taught me not to be afraid of competition. As long as it’s promoted and people know it’s on, if it’s good, it will work.”

As for Daly, he has his own litmus test for success. “This show is well-produced, honest, positive, has integrity, is a ton of fun and it’s a gamble — it’s all of those things,” he says excitedly. “I can’t predict if the audience will show up, if they’ll be big or slow or terrible or grow, but I know regardless of ratings, I can wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m proud of what I did at 9 p.m. last night.’ ”              

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