How The Voice screwed up its second season

At the end of season two, one thing is clear about The Voice: NBC and producer Mark Burnett screwed up their surprise hit. They squandered both the momentum of a strong first season and ridiculously high ratings from the post-Super Bowl debut, in part because they failed to learn what didn’t work in season one. They still have charismatic coaches–Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton–who do well interacting with talented contestants, never mind acting in hilarious promos. But producers ran too far away from American Idol, and that has hurt the series.

Not including the Super Bowl episode, the show has lost more than half of its total viewers and viewers 18 to 49 between episodes two and 19. Sure, it has tough, new competition in Dancing with the Stars. American Idol is airing simultaneously and has been surprisingly strong this year, which helped it take back the lead from The Voice. And The Voice‘s ratings are still excellent, especially for NBC. But when you lose half of your audience and the hemorrhaging never stops, there’s a problem, and it has nothing to do with talent.

As season one ended, I detailed what worked and what didn’t with its surprising reinvention of the format. All of the same things continue to work–the coaches, the coaching, the blind auditions–but two of the things I thought did not work, the battle rounds and the voting, have only gotten worse. Here’s what remains broken and is not working:

  1. Overly complicated voting and elimination. Explain, in a sentence, what happened on the penultimate episode with the point system. Or recount exactly what the audience’s role has been in viewer votes every week since the beginning. Both are challenging tasks because voting changes constantly, and it seems like the show sometimes cares more about what viewers are saying on Twitter than about their votes. It’s clear that some of this is driven by the desire to have each coach be represented in the finale, but there has to be a simpler way to get there.
  2. Not giving viewers control. “For the first time this season, you at home have full control,” Carson Daly told viewers last night. This is a problem. On a network singing competition, the expectation is that viewers have control. As I said at the end of season one, it’s fine to let the coaches choose who stays and goes, but they should simplify that by borrowing from So You Think You Can Dance‘s original structure.
  3. The battle rounds. The battle rounds expanded to four weeks, and that time was mostly wasted because it was clear from the pairings that the coaches had a very clear idea of who should stay and who should go. So we had to spend a month watching them get rid of 50 percent of the people they just chose, which lost all of the momentum and excitement of the blind auditions and felt contrived. It’s no surprise that two million viewers bailed on the show during that time.
  4. Two episodes a week. Expanding to two nights hasn’t helped. The results shows are not bad by results show standards, but season one felt quick, efficient, and left us wanting more; doubling down for most of this season just made it seem to drag on even longer.
  5. There’s no reason to care. All of the above just took away our reason to care about the performers as individuals, and this was the real problem. The way the show told contestants’ stories didn’t work, alternately making us feel like we don’t know them at all and like we’re being hit over the head with the same sob story again and again, and the competition’s structure made them feel expendable. The Voice improved on American Idol in many, many ways, and is still far better than that crappy ego-trip known as The X Factor, but Idol‘s formula has its benefits, particularly in the way that it finds 12 people and allows us to get to know them as the group is narrowed.

    From its start to its finish, The Voice feels the same, with no sense of escalating competition. Especially if it airs its third season this fall, the show needs more consequence and less confusion.

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