The Miracle of 'The Voice'
Just two months ago, if NBC had been a craps table in Vegas, the dealer probably would have put on a coat -- the network's cold streak was that bad. But this spring, with new players from Comcast at the table, the network rolled the dice yet again on another big show, The Voice.
This time, the wager would be record-setting and the odds long. For starters, it was another music competition -- and the broadcast graveyard is littered with them. (Anyone remember NBC's Grease: You're the One That I Want?)
At $2.3 million per episode, Voice was the costliest new unscripted series in NBC's history. But the network was starving for a hit, and Voice -- a huge success in Holland that had displaced the Dutch version of Idol and The X Factor as the country's top show -- seemed to show promise.
Installed in late January as NBC's new entertainment chairman, Robert Greenblatt -- cautious and contemplative by nature -- was impressed enough to place his bet.
His instinct that the show might work was bolstered by the confidence of John de Mol, the Dutch media tycoon who had created The Voice of Holland. "When I went down to the set during the audition rounds, [John] said to me: 'This is going to work. It's absolutely going to be a hit,' " recalls Greenblatt. De Mol confirms that he wasn't just spinning. "How do you say this in English? I got chicken skin?" he says of those early performances. "Or is it goose bumps?"
That frisson made it all the way to the top. Hours before Voice was set to air for the first time on April 26, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke called Paul Telegdy, the network's head of alternative programming since January 2009. "This is all in the hands of the American viewing public," Burke told him, "but the show is excellent. So win or lose, you should be incredibly proud of the work that you've done."
Those were the words that Telegdy, who by some accounts had put his job on the line for Voice, wanted to hear. But the show still needed an audience. For that all-important 9 p.m. premiere, "coaches" Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton performed a rousing rendition of the Gnarls Barkley tune "Crazy" before seating themselves in outsized red chairs with their backs to the stage to hear the contestants and judge them, sight unseen. Encouragingly, the show quickly became the top trending topic on Twitter.
Ever cautious, Greenblatt figured a 3 rating in the key 18-49 adult demographic would be a win. At the crack of dawn the next day, Telegdy started looking at early fragments of data and doubted his eyes. He decided to go back to sleep but couldn't resist the impulse to check, and check again. The numbers were holding. "I realized that we weren't dealing with statistical error, which used to be the only reason for good news on NBC," he jokes.
The show's first episode had premiered to a 5.1 (about 12 million total viewers) in 18-49 -- the highest on any network since Undercover Boss debuted on CBS post-Super Bowl in 2010.
Greenblatt got the news around 6:30 a.m. "I immediately started e-mailing people in the company, saying this is fantastic," he says. He called Burke in New York, too. Burke already had the numbers but hadn't wanted to disturb his new entertainment chief at an ungodly hour," says Greenblatt.
That day, Burke called Telegdy again. "In my 32 years in this business," he told the reality chief, "you've just delivered me the best morning I can remember." NBC, it seemed, was not out of business.
"For Steve, it was a big sigh of relief," says the network's new chairman of broadcasting, Ted Harbert. "Yes, it can be done. NBC can put on a successful program. Because some had questioned that."
On the eve of Voice's premiere, NBC was all but shattered. Years of misguided management and sliding ratings had taken a toll on what used to be the proud Peacock, storied home of seminal hits from Cheers to The Cosby Show and ER.
The previous regime led by Jeff Zucker had come up with a series of attempted reinventions of the business that had made NBC's losses mount to something in the ballpark of $600 million last year. Seemingly good ideas (The Event) fell flat. A supposedly hot new hire (Ben Silverman) turned out to be woefully miscast. The most public blunder (Jay Leno five nights a week in primetime) not only drove down ratings in the 10 p.m. slot but also sparked a costly and embarrassing confrontation with Conan O'Brien. Even those on the network's payroll (30 Rock) had turned NBC into a punch line. It was no wonder morale was low. "Fourth place is hard to grapple with," says Greenblatt.
Now NBC has something it hasn't had in years: a genuine ratings success. Before Voice, its most-watched show in the 18-49 demo (other than football) was The Office, which averaged a 4 rating in its seventh season. Voice has given the network its biggest ratings success since 2006's Heroes, averaging a 5.5 this season.
Though Voice falls well short of American Idol's numbers, it's a hit -- so much so that in June, the network expanded the original 13-hour order to 18, including an hourlong finale June 29. NBC might expand those hours further in the show's second season and already granted it the plum post-Super Bowl spot in February. More importantly, in the hits-beget-hits world of TV, Voice offers a platform from which NBC can launch shows, notably Greenblatt's pet project, Smash -- the behind-the-scenes drama about a Broadway show starring Debra Messing and one-time Idol contestant Katharine McPhee. (The theater-loving Greenblatt brought the show with him from Showtime, and it will debut midseason after Voice.)
Voice might not be a panacea for the network's woes, but it gives NBC something that Madison Avenue actually wants to buy. A source says the network has been able to sell 30-second spots for about $250,000 and is looking for as much as $375,000 per spot next season (advertising sources believe that is unlikely unless the ratings surge). Recently, the show has added Sprint and Kia Motors as sponsors.
According to Tim Spengler, president of media marketing firm Initiative USA, Voice's impact on the network is dramatic. "It's bringing back some advertisers to NBC. It can't be ignored. It has the broad demographics that many advertisers are looking for," he says, adding, "Every so often, something comes along that delivers traditional [broadcast] scale, and this is an example of it."
What makes Voice work when so many other competition shows have come and gone? The show came out of the gate with a fizzy mix of fresh elements, strong talent and star power. It's no accident that the coaches -- Shelton (country), Green (R&B/pop), Levine (rock-pop) and Aguilera (pop) -- hit the broadest possible swath of the viewing public.
Voice coaches are in their 30s, while none of the Idol judges will ever see 40 again. (Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler are over 50.) And rather than insult the contestants the way Simon Cowell may, the Voice foursome is relentlessly positive, complimenting everything from tone to posture.
The coaches perform on the show regularly, and to earn further music cred, NBC marketed the premise that they started out listening to the singers with their backs turned, focusing on talent over appearance. If more than one coach was impressed, the contestant selected a mentor, adding more drama. Then the contestants went through battle rounds, competing in pairs to be included in the top 12. Finally, on June 7, the show moved to live competition, bristling with social media tie-ins. Both coaches and competitors tweet with fans during the broadcast (throughout commercial breaks, the mentors are glued to their hand-helds). The winner will walk away with a $200,000 cash prize and a one-album deal with Universal Republic.
None of this comes cheap. Though the show costs less to produce than a scripted hour, the $2.3 million price tag is more than the network would pay to license a first-year drama (about $2 million). The network maintains that the show's production values are high and that it had to spend to compete with such established giants as Idol as well as X Factor, which will launch as if it were established. The talent is pricey, too. Knowledgeable sources say Aguilera is pulling down more than $225,000 per hour; the other coaches about $75,000 each.
It's early June, and Voice is being beamed live for the first time. Executive producer Mark Burnett is high-fiving host Carson Daly and dancing along to his coaches' performances from the side of the stage. The show opens with Levine in silhouette, singing the first clear notes of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the crowd -- a mix of adoring fans and anxious suits -- cheers on cue.
Young women on either side of the stage surge forward, arms extended, hands clawing at the very air surrounding the Maroon 5 frontman. He hands off to Green, who segues to another fan favorite, "We Will Rock You." Shelton strolls out next to pick up the tune before, finally, Aguilera emerges, her face all but hidden beneath her blindingly blond locks. After a solo moment, she joins the other coaches in singing "We Are the Champions" as giant flames shoot behind them. The spectacle is at once cheesy and exhilarating.
These performances were "an issue of credibility," Telegdy says. The coaches "needed to stand up there and do it" -- to show that they are qualified to mentor other singers. (Perhaps because of the strong performances by the coaches, none of the contestants has emerged as a household name.)
So how did NBC -- an acronym that some have derided as "Nothing But Crap" -- find and nurture its highest-rated show in five years? The story begins more than a year ago, when Idol was preparing to lose its supposed key man, Cowell, and Telegdy thought there might be an opportunity. He had a hearty appetite for song and dance shows and was eager to get one at NBC. Telegdy wanted the show "to feel like an arena experience for a music fan."
Telegdy and senior vp Meredith Ahr turned to reality czar Burnett, who had launched Survivor and followed with The Apprentice. He was working with NBC at the time on Celebrity Apprentice and had done Rock Star, which lasted only two seasons at CBS. He wanted to take another swing at the music world. "He said, 'I feel like I have unfinished business -- I really want to crack this space,' " Telegdy says.
The concept wasn't crystallized, but it would involve three to four star judges from different genres who would mentor unknown singers. Telegdy and his team figured a truncated 10-episode season would attract higher-profile talent and began crafting a wish list that included Aguilera, Shelton and Levine. (Sources say John Mayer's name was bandied about early on.) By August 2010, they already were hunting for contestants.
When Telegdy's team pitched the idea to Jeff Gaspin, then-chairman of NBCU Television Entertainment, they hit a wall. The concept had no hook, he said. Nothing differentiated it from other competition shows, including X Factor.
But soon after, Telegdy heard from his overseas intelligence team about The Voice of Holland. It came from de Mol, who had launched a television programming empire that included hit formats Big Brother and Deal or No Deal. To Telegdy, he was a legend. "John de Mol's prominence in TV is Aaron Spelling squared," he says.
The hook was the blind auditions. Telegdy and Burnett were confounded that de Mol had come up with such a simple but compelling idea. "Mark and I looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God, how could we be so stupid not to think of this ourselves?' " says Telegdy. "John will hate seeing this in print, but I did think to myself, that's the reason John de Mol has a plane and a billion dollars."
In late October, Brooke Karzen of Warner Horizon, which had a deal with de Mol, went to Telegdy's office to make the pitch. He quickly cut her off. "We want to do this," he said. The format was also being shopped to CBS, which would balk at the cost. Telegdy did not: "I was willing to pay a premium."
Eager to cut a deal, Telegdy hopped on the last direct flight that would get him to Holland for a Friday evening taping in mid-November. He was horrified to find himself on a 747 that he insists was "at least 50 years old." Sitting on the tarmac in panic mode, he called his office and implored them to find another way to get him there. They couldn't.
By the time he made the taping, he was running on 40 consecutive hours without sleep. An hour into the actual show, Telegdy was asleep.
The next day, he met for two hours with de Mol and his team, promising NBC would nurture the concept. De Mol saw opportunity. "The fact that NBC was looking for something new that could be the turnaround [program] meant that they would do everything to back it," he says.
Telegdy returned from Holland on fire. "It's always exciting when a development exec has a DVD in his hand and he can't wait to show it to everyone," says a network insider. "He sold it internally and, more importantly, got the huge budget approved. It was eye-popping."
Not as eye-popping as it would become: In those early days, the cost per hour was $1.5 million. By the time it jelled, driving the number to $2.3 million, Gaspin would be gone and NBCU would have a whole new management team.