Monday, 21 May 2012

THE VOICE UK is getting hoarse

Monday, 21 May 2012

It began impressively enough, with over 10 million people tuning into the "blind auditions" stages of BBC1's singing contest The Voice. The UK version of the Dutch global hit was even beating Simon Cowell's juggernaut Britain's Got Talent when the two shows overlapped (although that's understandable when you factor in the BBC's lack of adverts, and people's tendency to record ITV shows to fast-forward through commercials). But still, whichever way you cut it, The Voice was a huge hit for the BBC and the mammoth ratings justified the £22 million they spent acquiring it. But now, chest-deep into the series, way past the "blind auditions" phase (with its signature revolving chairs) and the ludicrous "battle rounds", The Voice has lost half its audience and is hovering around the 5-6m mark.

So what's gone wrong?

Unfortunately, this is a question with many simple answers. Take away the revolving chairs and the inherent "will-they/won't-they-turn?" drama to choose contestants, and The Voice is just a limp version of X Factor. There's nothing to make it stand above Cowell's durable series, as even the standard of performances has dropped. It's curious how so many people, who sounded superb in their blind audition, are now exposed as just above-average club singers. Well, with a few exceptions (i.e. the handful of people most viewers are waiting to get to the bloody final already).

The Voice went to great pains to separate itself from the "manipulative" and "fake" X Factor—by refusing to showcase "bad singers" in auditions because that's often exploiting the mentally-challenged (a laudable principle), or to take "novelty acts" through to the latter stages (who are only really there to be laughed at). But it feels like many viewers miss the entertainment-value those elements provided reality singing contests. The Voice, by its very nature, couldn't allow a Wagner of a Jedward onto the stage at any point, but that means the bulk of its contestants are dull and every weekend's a parade of boring competence.

There are other problems, too:

The coaches, Jessie J, Tom Jones and Danny O'Donoghue (who are seated too far apart, limiting banter) look fine on paper, but the format of the show's neutered them in too many ways. Most obviously, it's hurt the show that every coach who spun their chair round instantly bestows a "blessing" on those lucky contestants. Coaches would now look stupid if they started back-tracking and saying a singer isn't really that great, especially as it could be constructed that the negativity's coming from the fact they've SEEN what they look like now.

So it's rare that a coach will tell the truth and slate a bad performance every weekend; instead choosing to talk gobbledygook with the occasional reference to things being "too pitchy". Pitchy has become code for "terrible".

Only the coaches who didn't spin their chair for Singer X or Singer Y can actually speak their minds freely. And, of course, just like X Factor, coaches who are mentoring singers are even more unlikely to criticise their own acts. The show would work a lot better if the judges were unbiased, as they used to be back in the days of Pop Idol, but X Factor's own tweaks to that format have somehow become ingrained in the format of these shows.

And are the coaches really that good in practise? The Black Eyed Peas' was something of a coup to get on this show, but I'm not a fan of his jabbering attempts to be funny. That said, he's at least the most likely person to speak the truth when someone's bad, so that gives him some brownie points. Jessie J's been good because she comes across as nice and genuine, although behind-the-scenes report of diva behaviour has damaged her image somewhat (even if they're untrue), and you don't always care what she says. Tom Jones gets credit for being the most hands-on with his singers (although I daresay his diary's emptier than the others), but whenever he talks on the show he's in danger of putting people to sleep. Danny O'Donoghue gets a lot of flack for being relatively unknown (although it's surprising how many The Script songs you do actually know), but he's at least enthusiastic about everything. The only problem with him is how, during the blind auditions rounds, he usually refused to push his button until someone else did. The last person you want on this show is someone who can't make up their own mind!

The staging

The production itself also leaves much to be desired. X Factor is a studio-based show, too, but it doesn't really resemble one. In contrast, The Voice looks small, quaint and "shiny floor". There's nothing impressive to look at, or any pomp and ceremony to proceedings. It's just a TV show. The studio atmosphere is absent, so nothing translates to the viewers watching at home. The Sunday night results show is also pre-recorded on Saturday to save productions costs of re-staging everything (which I understand), but that kills a lot of the appeal for those at home. Jessie J even spoiled The Voice's most recent results show by tweeting a photo of her two finalists before the result had been broadcast! Oops. The BBC clearly thought a pre-record would be fine, because it actually works for Strictly Come Dancing, but they need to rethink that for series 2.

The amateurism

It's also worth mentioning the embarrassment of Saturday night's show, when a live performance was stopped by Jessie J because her microphone failed. This left presenter Holly Willoughby filling for time while the sound problem was fixed. I know it's live TV and anything can happen, which is what's so great about it, but how many times has this occurred on X Factor in seven years? Never. The Voice just can't help feeling rather amateurish as a result.

More irritations

Finally, there's just lots of irritations flying around that soon stack up: like the pointlessness of co-presenter Reggie Yates, trying to make the backstage "V Room" appear more exciting than it really is, while giving us useless updates on what Twitter's saying (only tweets that are on-message, of course); the fact thinks tweeting during someone's performance is acceptable behaviour; the anonymity of the studio audience, shrouded in darkness; the lackluster staging and choreography of most performances, which seriously lacks any wow-factor; the horrible theme tune; the use of sob stories, which X Factor wisely cut back on because the public got fed up with them; and, in general, The Voice just feels like a TV show that pre-dates X Factor, like a this relic from 2002 the BBC have only just decided to air. Beyond the spinning chairs, nothing about it feels new and interesting.

Talent overkill

Also, while American audiences can evidently cope with a year-round parade of singing contests (American Idol, The Voice, X Factor), I don't think UK audiences like being bombarded with things that are too similar. We embrace variety. That's why the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing rivalry works well in autumn to winter, because the shows gives Britons options: celebrity or wannabes, singing or dancing? The Voice isn't clashing with X Factor, but we already spend half the year watching a TV show crown a popstar, who only really has a 50/50 chance of amounting to anything. Do we really need another one from spring to summer? Does anyone really feel that The Voice's winner is going to be held in as much esteem as X Factor winners are, seeing as even X Factor winners are forgotten about by February nowadays?

The future

Can The Voice be salvaged for series 2? Perhaps. Even in the US, they've decided to continue the revolving chairs idea into the "battle rounds" (although I have no idea how THAT will work, as they've presumably spun round in the "blind auditions" round). The BBC definitely need to encourage the coaches to be more plain-spoken (which they admittedly were last weekend), overhaul the staging, ditch the pointless V Room, lose the superfluous Reggie Yates, and perhaps look at some of the rules of the show for ways to improve them. 40 singers are too many for an audience to get involved with, to begin with, so it needs to get whittled down much quicker, for instance.

Anyway, those are just some brief thoughts which have been buzzing around my head and are hard to communicate in 140-characters on Twitter when I occasionally "live-tweet" the show on a Saturday. I say "live-tweet", but I really mean "take the piss". I just wish I was taking the mickey because it's enjoyable and fun to enter into a good-naturedly mocking spirit, and not because The Voice UK genuinely irks me now.

At least Holly Willoughby's wardrobe people are on the ball, to finish on a positive.