Christina Aguilera's singing competition won't get much of a long-term boost from the plum spot.
NBC needs a hit. And to say that most of the flailing network's eggs are in a basket labeled "The Voice" would be an understatement. The American Idol-like singing competition—its conceit is that celebrity mentors Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Shelton select singers based on their vocal talents alone, and coach them to compete for a record contract—was a surprise bright spot on the network's schedule when it premiered last spring. The hope now is that in its second season, the show is popular enough to be the savior that will rescue NBC from the ratings basement. (God/vodka knows that Are You There, Chelsea? isn't). So confident is the network that The Voice is a ratings-blessed idol to worship that it scheduled the series in this year's plumb post-Super Bowl time slot—and made the announcement nearly nine months ago. Boy, was that a bad idea.
Airing after the Super Bowl is considered a major coup for any series. The four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) rotate who gets to broadcast the Super Bowl each year—and thus wins its over 100 million viewers and accompanying ad dollars. That means they also alternate who is given the supremely advantageous platform directly after the telecast to spotlight one of the network's series, with the hope of helping win it some new viewers. Series in the pimp slot have received an average ratings surge of over 100 percent, while shows that premiered in it have been seen by a staggering 40 million viewers. In recent years, Fox bestowed the honor on its buzzy musical soap opera Glee, CBS launched its reality series Undercover Boss, and and ABC aired the biggest water cooler episode of Grey's Anatomy to date.
So why is The Voice a bad choice? It's not because sloshed Patriots fans may be turned off by a show in which a portly bald man wearing an oversized fur coat swivels his Star Trek space throne to see the homely female who is crooning Miley Cyrus' "The Climb." For better or worse, Glee proved last year that atypical counter programming can actually be quite successful in that post-Super Bowl time slot, football stereotypes be damned. The Voice is a bad idea for a different reason: The high-profile slot will end up hurting The Voice in the long run by subjecting it to hype and expectations that it won't be able to meet.
When it premiered, The Voice was considered a hit because the benchmark was so low. This isn't the first season that NBC has been swimming in a cesspool of ratings. Last year, things were just as putrid. The premiere of The Voice in April pulled 11.8 million viewers: miraculous by NBC's standards (though barely enough to beat a recent episode of Rob today on CBS).
There was also the surprise that it was successful at all. Many expected the show to be dead on arrival; a saturation of Idol copycats on the airwaves would surely leave viewers disinterested. But something about the charmingly combative chemistry between the judges and the unpolished nature of the contestants won over viewers, and rightfully so.
But there's a danger in outsized expectations. The Voice should be considered successful. As far as NBC is concerned, it is a ratings windfall, and actually quite entertaining to watch. But the spine of its success narrative is that it defied expectations, that it was such a surprise hit. Now, thrusting it into the post-Super Bowl timeslot shines a flashing neon pink spotlight on over-the-top, impossible-to-achieve hopes, dreams, and expectations from NBC. The show will get a Super Bowl bump, but then likely taper back down to its moderate, respectful ratings. To begin with, The Voice's first winner, Javier Colon, already came and went, releasing his first single and animal without making even the slightest impression on the industry. The show lacks the track record in producing a star that's necessary to intrigue new viewers. As for the ratings: Viewership for talent competitions is down. Period. The X Factor underwhelmed, American Idol is suffering its lowest ratings ever, while The Sing-Off's viewership could probably be measured in dozens. No matter what promotional time slot NBC gives it, The Voice is practically fated to return to its previous ratings mark. The story will change. It will no longer be "The Voice: The underdog hit." It will be "The Voice: The letdown."
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Consider the plight of The X Factor. Simon Cowell essentially doomed the Idol-like show's prospects with his own hubris, brazenly asserting that ratings less than 20 million would be a failure. The series ended up getting roughly half that number, though was still a respectable performer for Fox. But Cowell's initial decree still haunts him, as the opinion that the show was a failure still lingers—especially following its recent personnel bloodbath.
NBC needs a hit, yes, but more than that, after years of ratings woes it needs a round of good press. A Voice run that's ruled disappointing just because ambitions were too high would not accomplish that. A wiser idea? Perhaps NBC should have launched Smash in the slot. As anyone who's seen the relentless promotion for the expensive, splashy musical drama (read: anyone with eyeballs) knows, NBC is really pushing for it to catch on. What better way than to premiere in front of 40 million people? It certainly boasts enough razzle dazzle to entertain a nation of viewers who had hours before witnessed the Madonna half-time spectacle.
Or better yet, how about we learn a little from history? In 2010, NBC aired an hour-long episode of The Office after the Super Bowl. At that point, the quirky mockumentary sitcom was popular—but in the cultish college kids, critics, and highbrow-viewers-with-taste kind of way. Everyone knew what it was, heard that it was outrageously funny, but it was still only a middling ratings performer. Then NBC gave it the post-Super Bowl slot, produced a genius episode (that fire drill cold open alone is a comedy classic), and hooked an entirely new demographic of viewers. The show quickly became one of TV's highest-rated comedies, and popular enough to outlast even its marquee star, Steve Carell. What other NBC sitcom is an uproarious critics darling with mass appeal but cruelly lacking the large audience it deserves? Perhaps it wouldn't have been such a bad idea to give the incredibly Office-like Parks and Recreation the slot.
The untested Smash and underrated Parks and Rec are shows that can afford to come back down to earth after their Super Bowl airings. Thanks to the precarious height of the pedestal that NBC has placed The Voice on, there's no way it wouldn't come violently crashing down. And the last thing NBC needs is another mess to clean up.
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