A few months before production began on the 19th season of NBC’s singing competition stalwart “The Voice,” coach Blake Shelton didn’t know if they’d be able to do the show.
The world was in the middle of a pandemic, and rather than put the show together remotely, with everyone filming themselves in the self-isolation of their own homes, as they had wrapped up the previous season, “The Voice” was heading back to its Los Angeles soundstage. Now, just ahead of Season 20, Shelton says he wasn’t concerned about COVID safety (“I knew we had the right people to make that happen”), but rather how they would do the show without the live audience.
Creating a concert vibe on the Peacock network has been an integral part of “The Voice” since it first launched in 2011. Unknown singers from all walks of life step on stage during the blind audition round with an in-studio audience cheering in front of them. The show’s coaches sit in big red chairs turned away from the auditioner until they hear a note so powerful they are moved to hit their big red button, spinning the chair around and ultimately saying, “I want you to be a part of my team.”
It is “an escape and entertainment” for the at-home audience, notes Jenny Groom, executive vice president, unscripted content, NBCUniversal, something the audience greatly needed in 2020 as the pandemic was forcing everyone home, shuttering businesses and canceling in-person concerts.
Now, as “The Voice” enters into its 20th season — and 10th calendar year — while the pandemic still rages on, those elements are more essential than ever.
“What we realized is what people really want is normalcy, and we’re just trying to deliver them the regular, ol’ ‘Voice’ they know and love,” executive producer Audrey Morrissey says of the anniversary season.
That means that all of the favorite format elements are returning in the new season, from the Blind Auditions to the battle rounds to the steal. Original coach Shelton continues his reign, alongside Kelly Clarkson, John Legend and the return of Nick Jonas. The season will add even more star power through battle advisors Brandy, Dan and Shay, Luis Fonsi, and Darren Criss.
That is not to say, however, that amid the still-ongoing pandemic “The Voice” is not taking every proper health and safety precaution. In fact, it is quite the opposite, starting with the fact that there were no in-person open casting calls for the season.
“Normally they go on this roadshow, and then we fly people to L.A., and we get a crack at meeting a bunch of them and ultimately decide who’s getting on the show,” says Morrissey. But now, “people have sung for us over Zoom, they’ve submitted tapes, done virtual interviews, and we’ve gone from there.”
This process not only opened up the number of people submitting, but “it’s almost democratized the ability to be able to audition, [because] you don’t have to be close to a city that we’re going to,” Groom adds.
Once in production, the show is rigorous about its COVID testing, social-distancing practices and limiting the number of people who can be on set. (Coaches, for example, are only allowed to have a plus-one, not their whole team and family members, while contestants’ families watch them virtually, through screens, rather than backstage or in the wings. The studio audience seats remain empty, relying instead on virtual participants there as well.) But producers still want to create a welcoming environment for those appearing on the show and those watching at home.
“I feel like the show’s psychiatrist in a lot of ways,” says host and producer Carson Daly. Because it can now be “very quiet on the set, I talk to a lot of artists before they go out, [and] found myself being like, ‘It’s going to be a little different, there’s not going to be a huge audience, but this is your moment to make a connection and use it to your advantage; you won’t get distracted by a crowd.’ I tried to turn everything into a positive.”
Shelton worried about the lack of live audience in the beginning of this process, primarily because for the contestants who didn’t get chosen to continue onto a coach’s team, it’s a comfort “to have that sendoff of the audience applauding and telling you it’s going to be OK.” But he, too, has found the positive in the new normal: “From a coach standpoint at the end of the day it helped, not having a live audience in the room, because we were able to hear every little thing that was happening on that stage behind us, and it helped us make our decisions.”
In these COVID times, the coaches are finding new and fun ways to celebrate those decisions and welcome their contestants to their teams. Gone are the hugs and even Legend’s Season 19 hand on a stick, but in its place are more memorable moments. “John actually does an impromptu serenading jingle,” previews Daly. “He pulls out a little keyboard and he usually works their name in.”
Changing coaches season over season and tweaking format changes have kept the series fresh for viewers and its behind-the-scenes team alike. “In order to run 10 years and beyond, a series must appeal to a very broad base of engaged fans,” notes Mark Burnett, executive producer and chairman, MGM Worldwide Television Group.
And it is these moments of genuine connection that have added to the show’s goodhearted nature and multi-quadrant viewing appeal.
“Prior to ‘The Voice’ coming to NBC in 2011, most other singing competition shows seemed to have a certain humiliation factor, which was used to drive ratings. From the beginning, we decided that ‘The Voice’ would exhibit kindness and compassion equally to those who made it through the Blind Auditions and those who didn’t,” Burnett continues.
In keeping the “drama” between coaches, rather than contestants, the show “has touched the heart of so many and it’s reflected in its celebrated success and longevity,” adds Mike Darnell, president, Warner Bros. Unscripted Television. “It’s a testament to the creativity and pride from the producers, the coaches, Carson and the whole team behind the camera. Warner Bros. Unscripted Television is thrilled to be part of the family and looks forward to many more seasons ahead.”
Thus far, “The Voice” is a seven-time Emmy winner, including four in the competition series category; it received a prime post-Olympics spot in 2016; has been used as a platform to launch other shows on NBC, and made its mark with its spinning chairs, a “genius nugget,” according to Groom.
“’The Voice’ is such an incredibly valuable franchise for us,” she continues. “It’s still reaching nearly 110 million viewers a year, which is a huge footprint for us, and still one of the Top 5 ranked alternative series. This last season being the No. 1 most-watched alternative season to date was another great thing for us.”
Any one of these achievements might be enough to keep members of the team coming back season after season, but for those who have been there from the beginning, the draw of the show goes beyond the tangible.
“It’s like the way a Catholic goes to Mass and just buys in at the Eucharist. It’s a ritual, it’s spiritual, and you either buy in or you don’t,” says Daly.
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