singing fatigue

America Is Getting Really Tired of Singing Competitions. What Should Networks Do Now?

Photo: FOX, NBC, ABC

ABC’s heavily hyped new singing competition Rising Star didn’t exactly tank with its Sunday premiere: About 5 million people watched, many of them under 35, which, in the summertime, hardly qualifies as a disaster. But audience sampling of the show was definitely meh, viewer levels crept down throughout the two-hour bow, and overall, ABC execs had to be deeply disappointed by the show’s very soft performance. After all, the Alphabet network had been touting Rising Star for months, most recently with a relentless promo assault during its coverage of the NBA Finals and World Cup games airing on ABC. (Interestingly, sister net ESPN did not air a dedicated Rising Star promo during this weekend’s big USA-Portugal matchup. Disney synergy has its limits, apparently.) The network shelled out significant dollars up front on the show, paying handsomely for everything from a spiffy-looking set and specialized voting app to whatever it costs these days to hire singers such as Ke$ha and Josh Groban. And the result of all this effort? Cheap-o Canadian import Rookie Blue delivered nearly a million more viewers to ABC last week.

Despite its inauspicious debut, it’s probably a tad premature to declare Rising Star a total failure. As noted, the series did an okay job of bringing in young viewers (increasingly hard to do for broadcast networks these days), and it’s possible (though probably unlikely) word of mouth will allow the show’s ratings to, er, rise over the course of the summer, much as American Idol did a dozen years ago. But whatever the final verdict on ABC’s latest unscripted effort, the lackluster viewer response to such an aggressively marketed network premiere underscores something that’s been apparent for months now: The TV music-competition series, which dominated pop culture for most of the first decade of this century, is now well past its peak. What does that mean for the networks still heavily invested in the genre, and those (like ABC) still dreaming of launching the next American Idol? Cue up your favorite Kelly Clarkson playlist, and let’s consider where things stand now:

The Voice is starting to sound a little raspy.
NBC’s chair-spinning musical contest has replaced American Idol as our country’s biggest primetime talent showcase, and it would be incorrect to describe it as anything but a massive asset for the network. And yet, signs abound that The Voice’s best ratings days are probably behind it. This spring’s finale was down about 25 percent from a year ago, while overall, the show shed about 12 percent of its young-adult audience during the 2013-14 season. While such declines are no reason to panic, they’re not the kinds of numbers you’d expect for a big, buzz-worthy hit that’s barely three years old. (ABC’s Scandal, by contrast, grew 45 percent in its third season.) NBC’s challenge over the next year or so is to make sure these modest declines don’t turn into major viewer defections.  

Part of the Peacock’s problem, of course, is the strategic call it made shortly after The Voice took off: Rather than make its singing show an annual event, as Idol has always been, NBC brass opted to air two cycles of the show each year. It was a logical move, since the omnipresence of The Voice was a key reason NBC has gone from worst to first since 2011. But as execs surely knew would happen,  making The Voice less special has made the show, well … less special (as the declining ratings underscore). Producer Mark Burnett has been smart about doing everything possible to keep The Voice feeling fresh, such as rotating in new judges each cycle and adding twists to the game. The time may be coming for more drastic action, however. At some point, NBC execs will have to seriously consider cutting down their reliance on The Voice by airing just one cycle each year. It won’t happen this year, given how much NBC still needs to bulk up its stable of scripted successes, and considering how well the three hours of Voice the network airs each week do in the ratings. Before too long, however, NBC may have to accept some short-term pain to ensure the long-term future of TV’s biggest music franchise. If it times things right, however, it is not at all inconceivable that The Voice could last another decade, particularly as broadcast networks increasingly look to specialize in DVR-proof event programming.

The idea that American Idol is over is a little overblown.
Yes, the show is a shadow of its former self, and no, it’ll almost certainly never dominate pop culture the way it did as recently as three years ago. But that’s no reason for Fox to lean in to the media caricature of Idol as some washed-up loser of a show that’s fallen into an irreversible death spiral. As awful as ratings were last season, Idol remained one of the network’s top shows, particularly during its first few weeks back on the air in January and February. Ratings didn’t really begin to dive until the show entered the top 12 phase, perhaps indicating that Idol’s core audience was rejecting a bunch of bland and boring singers more than the show itself. But even then, with viewers bailing at a rapid clip, aging Idol still drew okay ratings (often beating the network’s Tuesday comedies, Glee and newcomers such as Rake). Even when Idol gave viewers its worst, a sizable audience base stayed loyal.

Unfortunately, all signs from Fox suggest the network doesn’t share this rosy scenario. In what will likely end up being his last press conference as chairman of Fox Entertainment, soon-to-depart exec Kevin Reilly seemed to talk of Idol almost in the past tense, mentioning fewer episodes next year and possibly a reduction to one night per week. Reilly now won’t guide the show through its next phase, but odds are the person (or people) who replace him will have absolutely no connection to Idol, and thus be even more likely to cut Idol loose. This would be a shame, because as much as last season may have soured a certain segment of viewers on the franchise, there’s a good chance that the viewers who’ve stuck with the show this long will once again give Idol another shot come January. If that happens, and if producers can manage to find a better gang of would-be superstars, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to imagine Idol finally halting its ratings slide, or even ticking up slightly. Much as CBS’s Survivor has become a staple of the Eye’s primetime lineup long after it stopped being a phenomenon, so, too could Idol endure, perhaps eventually with less costly celebrity judges and as a summer show. Bottom line: Throwing away one of TV’s most spectacularly successful (and profitable) franchises because of a few bad seasons just doesn’t make sense. (Caveat to the bottom line: If producers and judges once again fail to come up with interesting contestants next year, then we might be the first begging Fox to put Idol out of its misery.)

The time has come for a voluntary ban on any new attempts to find the Next Big Musical Superstar.
No matter what critics thought of Rising Star, odds are the show was never going to take off in a big way, if only because of viewers’ singing-competition fatigue. Now, until someone commissions a scientific poll, there’s no way to know for sure that audiences are totally over self-important music competitions. But logic suggests there’s only so much bandwidth for this kind of show, and Idol and Voice seem to be taking up a lot of said bandwidth. ABC execs ignored that logic because they really, really want a music competition show to call their own. And CBS brass seem just as committed: In February, the Eye unofficially confirmed it was developing an American version of a singing show format from Turkey called In the Spotlight, a sort of American Idol speed-dating competition in which crooners get 15-20 seconds to get noticed before another wannabe gets turn. The producer of the U.S. show: none other than former Idol grand poo-bah Nigel Lythgoe. With all respect to CBS and Lythgoe, this project really ought to just go away. No matter how interesting it might end up being, it’s just hard to see audiences embracing another new show designed to pick a single musical star. We’ve got two such shows already, and we’re not even into those shows that much anymore. So why try to force another one on the air? Stop it!

But if networks must keep doing music-themed shows, maybe bringing back some golden oldies would work.
TV’s current singing shows (successful and failed) all basically revolve around finding a singular talent and crowning a winner. But what’s not on network TV right now is a singing show that plays on the dynamics of a group. You know, something like the competition/documentary series Making the Band, which ran on ABC for two years at the turn of the century, chronicling the “rise” of boy-band O-Town (and was then reformatted by MTV and Diddy). Or Rock Star, the cult-classic reality competition (if such a thing exists) that Mark Burnett produced for CBS from 2005-06 (it help find a new lead singer for INXS in season one). And even before Idol, the now-dead WB network was ahead of its time with 2001’s let’s-create-a-band show  Popstars (two words: Eden’s Crush). None of these series were massive hits when they aired, but they all did decently, particularly with viewers who were teens and 20-somethings at the time. If CBS and ABC insist on trying to launch music shows of their own, rather than try to get viewers invested in some slightly different take on The Voice or Idol, it might make more sense to simply reboot concepts that kinda sorta worked in the past.

America Is Really Tired of Singing Competitions