Is Israel's 'Rising Star' the Next 'The Voice'?

Rising Star Key Art - H 2013

Rising Star Key Art - H 2013

Stellar ratings and unprecedented social media integration have made Keshet's singing competition show the hottest new international format in reality TV.

Israel, the TV nation that brought the world Homeland, may be on the brink of another global hit with Rising Star, a new singing competition format that is breaking ratings records at home and wowing industry insiders with its use of social media technology.

If numbers don't lie, Rising Star's ratings tell a clear success story: The show debuted to a phenomenal 44.7 percent market share in primetime on Israel's Channel 2 network, seven times the rating for its nearest competitor. Ratings have actually increased since, topping 49 percent for the third episode of Rising Star, which aired this past Sunday.

It's an especially impressive feat considering Israel's version of Idol, called Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), flamed out in its tenth season on the same network. Not that the tiny country is letting loose its grip on singing competitions -- this year marks the return of The Voice Israel and the premiere of X Factor Israel, hosted by supermodel Bar Refaeli, on Reshet later in October.

In fact, it's because of the impending arrival of the latter two shows that Rising Star pushed up its premiere. Coinciding with the Jewish high holidays, it was the only new show to broadcast in primetime and had zero competition as most other networks were showing reruns and holidays specials. In fact, Keshet was even more strategic in launching prior to X Factor and with no other reality show even airing.

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The concept of Rising Star is broadly the same game as Idol, The Voice or X Factor: A group of unknowns compete to be crowned the next big thing in entertainment. Rising Star features all the familiar elements: the auditions, the panel of celebrity judges, the live studio performances.

The twist comes in the voting. Instead of call-in votes that are tallied over the course of a show with a winner announced at the end, audiences for Rising Star vote live on the air during a singer's performance and their decisions play out in real time for the audience, and the performer, to see.

“These star and talent shows have been on the air for 10 years or so, and I think there's a fatigue in the way things are done, with everyone having to watch one telephone number after another on screen and wait till the end for the result,” Avi Nir, CEO of Rising Star producer Keshet tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There's no drama. The only supposed drama comes from the reaction of the judges, but that too becomes mundane and predictable. We wanted to put drama back into each and every vote.”

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How that is done is Rising Star's other big innovation: the Wall. When a performer comes out on stage, he or she is separated from the studio audience, and the judges, by a translucent floor-to-celling LED screen. As the performer begins to sing, the judges and viewers at home vote on the performance. Images of voters at home, gleaned from their Facebook pages, appear live on the LED screen facing the performer as the votes are tallied. Only if a singer wins over a certain percentage of the audience – 70 percent in the original version of the show – does the wall rise and the singer then steps out to accept the applause of the live studio audience.

In a final twist, the judges have far less power in determining the winners. A vote from the four judges counts 7 percent each toward a contestant's score. The remaining 72 percent of the vote comes from the audience.

The Wall is to Rising Star what those spinning chairs are to The Voice. But behind the gimmick is groundbreaking technology that allows viewers to vote directly, live, via an app Keshet developed in-house for the show.

“There is a lot of talk about second-screen applications and most shows like this have them, showing lyrics, trivia or whatever,” Nir says. “But while most second-screen apps run parallel to the show, here the app is completely integrated into the show itself. You can't do the show without the app and vice versa. Without the second screen, there is no show.”

Before the debut of Rising Star, Channel 2 viewers had to download the show's free app and install it on their tablets or smartphones. During the live show, they vote via the app with a yes/no button during each performance. What sounds simple was a technological nightmare, says Shahar Shpalter, head of cross media at Keshet.

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“We had to design a reliable, scalable system capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of viewers that, in real time, synchronized all the elements: the voting, viewers' Facebook photos, the graphic engine connecting to the LED screen, all live during a three-minute song so that boom! -- you have the result.”

Keshet did a 10-minute live beta test of the technology a week before Rising Star's debut and planned for all eventualities, but they didn't really know what would happen until the show went on air live and the first contestant walked out.

“I was almost unconscious with nerves,” admits Nir. “And then our first contestant, who we were absolutely sure people would love and who got votes from all the judges, didn't make the 70 percent mark with the audience. The wall stayed down and I thought 'What if it stays down the whole show'? That'll be it.”

Luckily, viewers loved the next performer, who scored 95 percent; the wall went up and Rising Star was a hit. Importantly, the interactive participation rate was huge, 10 times any previous Keshet show with a conversion rate of 30 percent of the total TV audience.

Figures like that have already caught the attention of international broadcasters, who will get their first chance to check out Rising Star at TV confab MIPCOM next week. While Nir insists that  the show's technology, developed for tiny Israel, is fully scalable, he says Keshet is taking a "slowly, slowly" approach.

“The format is complicated technically, and we want to make sure it is done right, so we will work very closely with foreign broadcasters to see how it can be adapted properly.”