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.
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.
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."