Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Voice Boldly Takes Social Connectivity to Places No Man's Gone Before

NBC’s got a singing competition show, but it’s not American Idol, The Sing-Off, The Singing Bee, Don’t Forget the Lyrics, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, Making the Band, Grease—You’re the One That I Want, or Majors & Minors. Nope, this one’s completely different.

It’s called The Voice, and it features celebrity judges, audition episodes in which some people are delusional about their singing ability, and eliminations based on audience voting. It’s totally unique!

NBC is trying really hard to distinguish this show from all the others. Yes, it’s a singing competition, but it’s more than that; it’s a spiritual experience. They’re performances in which each singer is coached by one of the celebrity judges. Oh, judges? Sorry, they’re coaches. Also, rather than being the “full package” like in other shows aiming to find new celebrity talent, the auditions were based solely on the singer’s voice. That’s right, the ju—coaches had their backs turned to the singers during the auditions so they wouldn’t be influenced by the person’s looks. As a result, some crazy-looking people made their way into the show.

Okay, so it does differ in that regard. Some of these contestants would never have been taken seriously on American Idol, so at least they’re in the competition. However, the voting public—the same people who just sent a group of pre-pubescent boys to the final on America’s Best Dance Crew—are still in charge when it comes to eliminating people, so we’ll see what happens.

Speaking of voting, NBC is also claiming that the show is “the most socially connected competition on television,” because voters now have four options instead of three: By phone call, by text message, by website, or by... downloading the song the singer performed from iTunes. That last one’s the big innovation, apparently, because the tally for all downloads of the song will be figured into whether or not a singer is eliminated.

But wait a minute! We’re not talking about paying for and downloading a recording of the contestant; we’re talking about the original recording. Or cover recording. I’m not sure of the details, but I know that if someone sings “Proud Mary,” they’ll get votes if someone downloads the Creedence Clearwater Revival recording. If this is the case, doesn’t it make sense for the singers to pick songs that are currently selling in droves? That doesn’t seem fair.

For example, one of the best performances of last night’s show was a cover of “Heartless” by Kanye West; but what if someone covered “E.T” by Katy Perry, featuring Kanye West? One’s probably selling a couple thousand a week, while the other’s hanging out in the millions. If there’s no way to distinguish between those voting by buying the song and those who are buying the song and completely oblivious to the impact it has on the show, then it’s definitely not fair.

My guess is that NBC understands this but has a deal with Apple or the record companies that own these songs; adding this as a “voting option” is really just a way to push sales and doesn’t really have an impact on the voting. It’s also clearly part of NBC’s marketing scheme to distinguish this show from all other singing competition shows on TV.

Mixed in-between the performances were updates from V-Correspondent Alison Haislip backstage who was reporting on the status of the show’s social tools. “Twitter is blowing up right now!” she frantically screamed, as if the awesomeness of the talent and the explosion of online commentary was nearly too much to handle. I pictured an arrow on a spinning dial that moved from “lol” to “2 Hot!” and then dangerously teetered on the edge of “OMFG!”

In these scenes, Haislip walked around with a microphone in one hand and an iPad in the other, reading live tweets featuring amateur critique of the performances just after they happened. The setting was a sort of backstage diner, with contestants who had already performed sitting around little tables with bar stools, iPads in hand, supposedly tweeting to all their fans or engaging in some other kind of social media interactions with viewers. More than one looked up at the camera to see if they were still on-screen and needed to continue pretending to use the devices.

It’s not necessarily NBC’s fault. They didn’t want to do “another singing competition” to begin with, so the social media integration is the compromise to make it happen. And while this stuff is clearly the future of media, and artists interacting directly with their fans is a proven PR method, it’s coming off a bit forced. Haislip shouts to Carson Daly like a concerned Scotty in the engine room of the doomed Starship Enterprise. She’s practically crying for help, drowning in a sea of tweets that are overwhelming in their awesomeness.

They’re on the right path, though. I don’t know about the iTunes tie-in, but social connectivity is definitely the future of competition. I just wish they weren’t forcing it so much.

Next up, another competition show called Singr. Or better yet, Sing. Contestants will tweet while performing, using an iPad as a microphone. Tagline: This show shot entirely on an iPhone 4.

[ UPDATE 6/15 ]: Last night's episode clarified that the iTunes downloads are of the performances from the show, not the original recording, which makes a lot more sense.

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