Forget The Voice: Fox has just taken the wraps off The Choice, a new celebrity dating game whose format spoofs NBC's successful singing competition. Teased during an ad which just ran on East Coast broadcasts of American Idol, The Choice at its heart is a celeb version of The Dating Game: Each episode will feature four well-known bachelors looking for love from a pool of civilian bachelorettes, and just as in the sixties show, the dudes will initially only be able to hear (and not see) potential dates. But Fox is updating the concept to mirror that of NBC's The Voice, and yes, giant revolving chairs are involved (and so is Cat Deeley, who's hosting).
According to the network, the first "blind round" of The Choice — the show bows Thursday, June 7 at 9 p.m. — will have female contestants talking about themselves as the celebs listen, their backs turned to the women. If a bachelor is impressed, he can pull his, um, "love handle" and choose to move forward with said bachelorette. But just as on The Voice, more than one celeb can pick a contestant. If that happens, the celebs will try to woo the bachelorette and convince her to join his harem. After each bachelor picks three would-be mates, the show moves on to a speed round, where the bachelor eliminates one more woman. The final round results in each of the four celebs choosing one everyday Jane to be his date for the night. (For the record: Fox has ordered six episodes of The Choice, and one will feature female celebs instead of guys).
At least as we see it, Fox's decision to greenlight The Voice is the sort of bold play Fox alternative series chief Mike Darnell was once famous for pulling — and is also a form of revenge against NBC for stealing away the thunder of The X Factor (more on that later). During a brief phone call Wednesday evening, Darnell didn't want to talk about the politics behind his new show (though he conceded the format is a bit "old school," perhaps a reference to his cheeky days). Instead, he told Vulture that The Choice, along with the upcoming Take Me Out, are designed to "fill a hole in the dating genre. There hasn't been a really big dating show since The Bachelor." He's also always loved the idea of riffing on the notion of "love is blind," and when given a choice between separating potential mates by wall, blindfold, or spinning chairs, the latter "format seems to fit the blind date idea extraordinarily well."
That's reasonable, and yet: During the early years of the unscripted boom, Darnell and Fox often had no qualms about going after rival nets who had found a successful idea. Case in point: When NBC landed Mark Burnett to produce a boxing show, Darnell punched back with his own boxing series (both failed). He also jumped on the dating bandwagon when The Bachelor clicked, throwing up a slew of copycats (including Mr. Personality, which also explored the "love is blind" idea by having male suitors wear masks). Launching The Choice, almost in secret, seems like Classic Darnell.
Darnell has mellowed over the years, or, at the very least, has become too busy overseeing the monster success of American Idol and other franchises, such as Hell's Kitchen and So You Think You Can Dance? What's more, other networks have started to imitate his guerrilla techniques. ABC, for example, just announced a plan to take on CBS's Big Brother with a show that's very much a clone of the Eye's long-running hit. And NBC played hardball with Fox in the singing competition wars: When Fox made the mistake of telling the whole world about The X-Factor nearly two years before its launch, Peacock reality chief Paul Telegdy secretly worked on the format for The Voice, which has the same celebrity mentor format as X-Factor. Telegdy then rushed the show on the air last spring, before Fox could get X-Factor on the air. Some industry analysts are convinced this was one reason X was a ratings underpeformer, at least compared to expectations: By the time it debut last fall, viewers had already fallen for the similar The Voice.
This brings us back to The Choice and The Voice. Fox's new show is not a singing competition. But by spoofing the big-chairs and blind auditions of NBC's show, Darnell is basically calling out NBC's show as nothing more than a game — and launching a spoof that, at least on some level, could be seen as an attempt to make The Voice seem cheesy and already prime for parody via The Choice. Darnell also seems to be playing off conventional TV biz wisdom that the part of The Voice viewers love the most is the early big-chair round. (Ratings back this up: Both seasons of NBC's singing show have finished with ratings for the final weeks of shows weaker than early episodes. Indeed, The Voice just aired its least-watched episode ever). Even if The Choice has no impact on future seasons of The Voice — that is, viewers don't really process the fact that Fox parodied it — Darnell could be smartly jumping on the most successful aspect of The Voice and end up launching a summer hit as a result. At the very least, the parody aspects of Fox's new show guarantee lots of press coverage and buzz, giving The Choice a better-than-average shot at breaking out in an increasingly competitive summer TV environment. Well played, Mr. Darnell. It's good to have you back!