The Miracle of 'The Voice'
The fourth-place network (finally!) has a big, flashy hit as NBC's execs, talent and producers open up about the drama behind the talent show's making, why it works and how the Peacock could use this to plume its feathers once again.
In his first major interview since taking the job, Greenblatt insists he was not daunted by the network's condition. "I looked forward to it because of the challenge," he says. "I know that may sound counterintuitive, but I'm not a good maintainer. I like to build or rebuild, brand or rebrand. It seemed like, what more interesting challenge could there be?"
When he arrived, there was talk that he was less than thrilled with the projects in NBC's cupboard. "Bob kind of held his nose, I think, when he saw a lot of this stuff," says an insider. "There was only so much he could do given the timing. So many scripts had been purchased."
Greenblatt acknowledges that the spring schedule had "a lot of holes and a lot of things that were not working, and there wasn't a lot we could do about it. The shows had been made; the money had been spent. … We really had to use the hand we were dealt. Just try to make the best of what we had."
It's hard to analyze precisely where Greenblatt got involved in rushing Voice onto the NBC schedule -- in part because of his insistence on giving Telegdy the credit he deserves and in part because it would hardly behoove Telegdy to take that credit.
"When really big names were entering the frame to be on this show -- Christina being the biggest -- the financial decisions and the decision around making that deal with Christina and the willingness to stand behind the marketing plan, those decisions were Bob's and Steve's to make, and they doubled down every time," Telegdy says.
The first person locked for the show was Carson Daly, formerly of MTV's Total Request Live and now host of NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly. "Carson was a big draw to talent in the music world," Telegdy says. "We wanted a credibility stamp, and he was it."
"I've been the caboose -- a pretty no-frills caboose, mind you -- for this network for 11 seasons," Daly says, adding that the advent of the new regime is a big relief. "It's good to be around the Peacock these days."
The four coaches followed, with Burnett acknowledging that Aguilera was a big coup. "All of my friends kept saying, 'You're crazy trying to get Christina,' " Burnett says. But he was the master talent wrangler and had worked with her on the MTV Movie Awards. "She's been through this," he says. "She was discovered on Star Search. … Once she saw that this was about mentoring up-and-coming singers and not about criticizing them, she was on board."
Aguilera's manager, Irving Azoff, says the title was a draw. "It was good for her to be recognized as the Voice," he says. "We knew this was a real opportunity to expose that side of her personality."
Meanwhile, Burnett went to SNL and saw Green perform not only musical numbers but also sketches. Afterward, Lorne Michaels sang Green's praises.
When it came to Levine, "he had such sex appeal," Burnett says. "He's been on the cover of lots of magazines, and everyone is interested in his personal life." Telegdy was struck by Levine's versatility when he caught him on Jimmy Fallon's show, taking song requests from the audience during commercial breaks.
And Shelton was a rising country star who served Burnett's desire to diversify. Telegdy had worked with Shelton a few years earlier on Clash of the Choirs and was impressed by his talent and easygoing style. He remembers asking the star whether he wanted to stay in the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons during Choir's two-week taping. Shelton's response: "I just need three parking spaces." For his tour bus.
Each coach says Voice's positive message was a big attraction. Aguilera claims she had seen only snippets of the other music-competition shows and was struck by their focus on "bashing the performers for 30 seconds of TV," which "might be juicy or interesting to the viewer, but I just wasn't into all of that." When she sat down with Burnett, she says, "he convinced me that that's not what this is about." (Her decision coincided with a series of setbacks: the disappointing Burlesque, a botched Super Bowl performance and an arrest for public intoxication, though no charges were filed.)
Shelton had much the same reaction, pointing to the show's policy not to include hopeless singers in auditions as spectacle. "It's not showcasing people who suck and making a mockery of anybody," he says. "It's just about good singers who all get that it's a competition show."
Levine, too, admits he was "extremely hesitant at first … but given what's going on in the record industry right now, I saw this show as a way to bring in new talent and give people a second, third or even fourth chance."
As for Green, he had performed on Voice of Holland and was fully aware of the show. "The blind auditions are actually what sold me because it was a fresh idea," he says. But like the others, he felt that the show's positive approach was essential. "A couple of us were like, 'I'll do it if you do it,' " he says. "No one was in a rush to be the bearer of bad news [to contestants] or to be the judge or superior to anyone because we're artists ourselves. When we considered it coaching and mentoring as opposed to judging, I'm like, 'I can do that.' "
A scant three weeks after the show's premiere, Greenblatt was at the network's upfront presentation in Manhattan. A colleague had described the surprise hit show as "a rare gift from God," he told the crowd, adding wryly, "I love it how the research people get religious around scheduling time."
Greenblatt's relief was so palpable that Jimmy Kimmel played off it the next day during his annual roast of the industry at the ABC upfront at Lincoln Center. "NBC thanked God for The Voice," he said. "God has nothing to do with what's going on at NBC. God stopped watching NBC after Friends. And God isn't in the demo anyway."
Greenblatt -- always talent-friendly -- responded by sending Kimmel a bottle of champagne and a note: "Dear Jimmy, You're a gift from God, too. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Cheers."
To which Kimmel responded: "I knew I liked you when we met about 12 years ago. Thanks so much for the Cristal. Very urban. I wish you the best. Please take good care of my young liege, Carson Daly. Next year the tide will turn."
Managing that turnaround is a delicate process. Sometimes success means not getting greedy. (ABC infamously ran Who Wants to Be a Millionaire into the ground by airing it as many as five nights a week.) So despite the lure of that ringing cash register, NBC left a second season of Voice off its fall schedule. Sources say Telegdy won that point, resisting great pressure from Burke and Harbert.
"I'm a selfish ratings-point monger," Harbert says. "I love ratings, and I wanted to get that and Smash on the air as soon as they were available." But he says Telegdy "was passionate about the fact that the show is very difficult to produce given the format. He just can't snap his fingers and find another 32 contestants … and then it's a big production."
Adds Greenblatt: "Why potentially kill the golden goose because we want the immediate satisfaction of a bump in the fall? Why not bring it back in January? That's faster than Idol comes back at this point. Let's look at the long view and do it right."
So Voice will not return until January. "We've seen what cannibalizing a show can do," says Francois Lee of advertising firm MediaVest, "so I do think the discipline is a good move."
When the next season launches, all four coaches are expected to be back, and de Mol says he envisions five to six audition episodes (up from only two this year). Telegdy is eager to build the backstories of the contestants and depict more of the coaching process in longer "battle round" episodes. And if all continues to go well, NBC hopes to have two installments of Voice -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- for the 2012-13 season.
NBC is looking at other ways of exploiting the show's success -- possibly a tour with some, if not all, of the coaches and an album featuring songs like their Queen medley.
Voice has had a big impact not just on NBC but on the lives of the coaches. Levine says the gig means "there's no coming home and sitting on the couch. I've never had a real job; it's always been just music. So it's taken some adjustments, but it's not bad to be so busy."
Green acknowledges that his visibility is "a thousand times greater" but being recognized everywhere is a mixed blessing. "To have to talk and talk and talk -- it takes a toll on you," he says. "There's no way you can avoid people unless you can afford to fly private all the time, and I can't. … It's a toll of being talented."
Shelton says he'll know more about the impact of the show when his new album comes out in July. "It's had a huge effect on me in terms of the demographics of the people who recognize me now. I hate to use a word like that, but I don't know any other way to say it," he says. "After the second show aired, I went into an Exxon gas station at about 1 in the morning -- a station that I must have been in 100 times -- and there was this young black girl working the cash register. I put my Funyuns or whatever down, and she screams. It scared the hell out of me. She said, 'You're that guy from the TV show I'm watching!' I thought, 'My God, I guess that's the power of television.' Normally I'd have to walk into a country bar for anybody to recognize me. But I'm a ham -- I love to have people recognize me because that means things must be going pretty well."
Pretty well, indeed.
THE VOICE'S ALL-STAR PANEL: The coaches and host talk about why they decided to throw their talents behind The Voice.
Adam Levine: "Sure, at first you think, 'A freakin' singing competition?' But it really is different. And as soon as you watch it, you see that."
Christina Aguilera: "It's nice to have something so exciting in my life but not feel the pressure to be in the forefront as an entertainer myself."
Blake Shelton: "In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'I hope this means that my album does better and more people come out and see me on tour.' That's still what I do."
Cee Lo Green: "I was one of the people who wasn't watching NBC either. … Now I will fight the fight. I'm on board. I'm all for NBC being the top network."
Carson Daly: "They could have expanded The Voice to like 40 episodes next season and really whored it out, as tends to happen a lot. You can kill your brand that way. They were smart to preserve it."