The TV Doctor: The Voice Season 4 and Blake Shelton

The TV Doctor is a regular feature on where Kyle Trembley focuses on one TV series and identifies what it’s doing wrong and how to fix it going forward. Today, we’re scheduling an EMERGENCY CONSULTATION to figure out what the hell is happening on ‘The Voice’ this season.

What’s going on with season 4 of ‘The Voice’?

The field of 48 contestants has been whittled down to six, four of which are country acts – Danielle Bradbery, Holly Tucker, The Swon Brothers, and Amber Carrington (who could be called a “crossover” act due to Coach Adam Levine’s aggressive song choices for her, but Amber auditioned with a country song). It’s certainly normal for country music to be represented on singing competitions, but for 2/3 of the final six contestants to be associated with any given genre, much less country, is near-unprecedented. For context, season three of ‘The Voice’ didn’t feature a single country act that advanced beyond the top-20. Unlike ‘American Idol,’ which tends to vascillate between favoring bland white guys with guitars and powerful pageant singers, ‘The Voice’ seems to pride itself on skewing younger with radio-friendly pop and R&B content (radio-friendly in theory, at least; the show has notoriously failed to produce an artist with mainstream success). Now, suddenly, it’s looking like no less than 3 of the 4 finalists this season will be country acts.

So I ask again: What’s going on with season 4 of ‘The Voice’?!

The answer, in my opinion, is easy. Blake Shelton is running the show. He’s playing chess, everyone else is playing checkers.

Yes, the same Blake Shelton that was jokingly called “grandpa” this week, the country bumpkin who happily serves as the butt of most of the other judges’ jokes. You know, the same Blake Shelton who has won two of the previous three seasons of ‘The Voice’ – with non-country acts, mind you.

Blake has made no secret that the lack of country success on the show has sticks in his craw, so this season he (remarkably) vowed to “keep it country” this year. And by golly, he’s stuck to his word.

That proclamation – made before the season began, mind you – is not only extremely telling in retrospect, but entirely unheard of. The gimmick of ‘The Voice’ is that the celebrity judges are also coaches, with their own “team” of contestants. However, the team structure has always been more for structural and organizational purposes rather than in a sports competition sense. The best contestants each season are (more or less) evenly distributed among the coaches, and whatever character the team itself has is dictated entirely by the singers on it.

Blake’s plan this season has hinged on the way he’s managed his team, which is unlike anything we’ve seen on the show to this point. He willfully cut arguably his best singer, Savannah Berry, when she dared to sing an indie song during the Knockout Round. Blake’s made it clear both on and off the show that he’s only interested in country acts this year, and engineered every decision he’s made around promoting that goal. The team he settled on for the live playoffs – Danielle Bradbery, Holly Tucker, and The Swon Brothers – are all pure country acts, who every week have been assigned country songs to sing by Blake, with very rare exception.

On paper, this sounds insane. ‘The Voice’ is not on the Country Music Channel, it’s on NBC. A huge portion – possibly the majority, even – of the voting public does not listen to country music at all. How could Blake expect to win with an all-country team when, again, not one country act advanced past the top-20 last Fall?

Ah, but that’s the hidden genius of Blake Shelton: He’s not looking backwards, he’s looking forward. If you don’t like the rules, change the game.

Here’s what Blake did: For country fans who DO watch the show (and their friends that don’t), he GUARANTEED that when the top-12 rolled around and fan voting started in earnest, at least 25% (3 out of 12) of every two-hour performance show would be devoted to country music – and as long as those country fans continued voting for Blake’s acts, that percentage would increase on a weekly basis. With pure-intentioned Adam inadvertantly bringing the number up to 33% via Amber Carrington, suddenly the live shows had a VERY country feel to them.

The voting public for ‘The Voice’ is not a random sampling of people across the country; it’s a self-selected group who watch the show and care enough to click, purchase, or call their vote in the night each episode airs. In other words, to vote for someone on ‘The Voice’, you generally have to care about ‘The Voice’ enough to watch it.

My theory, then, is this: By stacking the deck with country artists, Blake Shelton has in effect dictated the composition of the voting audience this season.

Think about it. Who wants to watch a country acts perform? Fans of country music. Who doesn’t want to watch country acts perform? Most everyone else. As soon as the live performances started, a solid 1/3 of the show was country music. When acts from other genres like Garrett Gardener and Vedo started falling by the wayside, it became more like a half. At that point, it’s not hard to see fans of other genres dropping off, bored by the music on the show, while the show’s popularity continued to grow among country fans.

The show’s ratings may hint at this phenomenon. ‘The Voice’ opened this season up some 20% from last year among adults 18-49, averaging north of a 4.5 rating for the Blind Auditions and Battles. But this season’s ratings have steadily declined since the Knockout Round. Here are the 18-49 ratings numbers for the last five episodes to air, starting with the Top-12 Performances and ending with the Top-8 Performances.

Season 4 (previous 5 episode ratings in 18-49 demographic): 3.8, 3.5, 3.5, 3.2, 3.0.

Compare that to season 3 during that same stretch: 4.4, 3.9, 3.7, 3.4, 4.2.

Yet, when you take a step back and look at the overall audience size, this season is more or less the same as last. Take a look at the overall numbers (in millions of viewers) over that same 5-episode span compared to season 3:

Season 4: 11.29, 10.47, 10.81, 10.18, 11.42.
Season 3: 11.63, 11.15, 10.60, 9.47, 12.17.

It doesn’t take a huge leap to see what’s going on. Once the early stages of the show ended this season, the audience of ‘The Voice’ has steadily gotten older. And I attribute this to the amount of country music on the show.

For one, as you can see from the numbers, this didn’t happen last year. ‘The Voice’ has always been a young-skewing show, but in recent weeks – with now at least half of each show devoted to country music – it’s aging at a rapid rate. Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causality, but it sure does make logical sense that the content of the the show is dictating its viewing audience – and by extension, its voting audience.

And that’s what we saw tonight, with Judith Hill and Sarah Simmons going home while all three of Blake’s country artists remained safe. Usher has one act left in lovable and gifted pop singer Michelle Chamuel. Shakira has one act left, Broadway-yeller Sasha Allen, who is hanging by a thread and finished last on iTunes this week. And now Adam has one act left as well, and of course it’s Amber Carrington, his country artist who most everyone would have ranked behind both Judith and Sarah entering the Live Playoffs.

In short, Blake is running roughshod over his fellow judges, and this season as a whole. Already the star of the show entering this year (Adam Levine isn’t hosting Christmas specials on NBC, you know?), Blake has leveraged his popularity and his fan base to mold season four of ‘The Voice’ into what he wanted: a showcase for country music.

Love it or hate it, you can’t help but respect it.

Two final notes: None of this is intended as a criticism of country music, country music fans, or Blake Shelton. As you may have guessed, I myself am not a fan of country music, but I bear no animosity towards it nor the people who are voting for it on ‘The Voice’. If the show featured a bunch of awesome indie rock acts this year, you better believe I’d be voting and telling my friends to join me. As for Blake, I guess you could say that this was all a happy accident born solely from his desire to promote country music, but I choose to give him more credit than that. I think he’s really sharp, and figured out a way to mold the season that’s light-years ahead of the other judges’ thinking. Even if I don’t like the outcome, I respect Blake’s game.

All that said, and even though Danielle Bradbery appears to have the season locked up, I do see one and only one way for Blake’s plan to be foiled. Let’s say Sasha Allen goes home next week, and is joined by Amber Carrington (the former is essential to this working, the latter would definitely help). That would leave Blake’s three contestants against Michelle Chamuel, who this week finished just a couple spots behind Danielle on iTunes. It’s not inconceivable that the country acts would split the vote, and Michelle, as the only remaining outlet for non-country fans who have stuck with the show, sneaks in to claim the crown.

In other words, the only way Blake doesn’t win this season is if his plan works TOO well. Oh, the irony.

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  1. Your comment I think your theory is sound; certainly Blake Shelton hides his smarts behind the cowboy-drinking persona he purveys. Still, he was open about his intentions for the competition this year so we can\’t blame him for carrying through his plan.I did feel for Adam somewhat last night. I think he believed his team was as strong, if not stronger, than Blake\’s. Judith has great talent, but I think the MJ back story might have hurt because there are still viewers out there who think – like some \’Dancing With The Stars\’ viewers do – that anyone with some experience has an unfair advantage. I also think though that, in some ways, she was becoming predictable and though giving great performances, they didn\’t seem to connect with the audience. Her song choice this week let her down. Sarah\’s talent is very different, with a Stevie Nicks-like quality to it, but I felt that despite that and some killer moments, the song choice failed her this week and she has been vocally inconsistent. Sometimes the ones Adam is really fervent about tend to be the ones that leave – why is that? Thinking with his heart and not his head??I actually thought Sasha and Holly might go this week. Sasha has a great voice but it\’s definitely one that shows her Broadway roots and therefore isn\’t for everyone. She often looks sullen on camera which is odd but maybe it\’s just nerves. Neither she nor Holly generates much personality either though Holly at least is trying. I thought it possible Blake might end up with his team intact, but it had occurred to me that if there was a split vote, Holly would go because Danielle – rightly or wrongly – seemed a shoe-in and The Swon Brothers, though not necessarily the best vocalists, are talented and know how to connect with an audience which is key – they don\’t just sing, they entertain and that\’s an important distinction.I can see what you mean about Blake\’s plot being foiled, but I actually think Michelle has a great voice and could win regardless. I have considered her a dark horse for the past couple of weeks. Usher seems pleasantly surprised at a) her talent and b) her work ethic, the latter being very important to him. The glasses manoeuvre this week was a master stroke for the fan base.Danielle has talent but is too young to have real connection with many of the lyrics she\’s singing. She appeals in a Carrie Underwood way but doesn\’t have the same depth yet. In future years she may be a great star, but frankly it will take some work because I thought her performance of \’Grandpa\’ was flat this week. So either it\’s how the sound comes across on my TV, or no-one else noticed because they are too wrapped up in their idea of who she is rather than seeing the reality. Blake openly stated she\’s his retirement plan and it seems to me that galvanized the fan base!I really like Amber. Her voice has a warm timbre to it and so I am hoping she ends up in the final, either with Michelle or Danielle. Either way it could be very interesting and an upset could occur. If Adam is smart, he\’ll be reviewing his coaching strategy intensely this week.

  2. Not sure why my comment hasn’t retained paragraph structure or why there’s a backward slash included before each apostrophe…. Obviously something I’ve missed?

    • That happens to me, too, if i don’t type the captcha correctly. When it asks you to type it again, it changes all the apostrophes to back slashes. Happened to me one time and then I learned to always copy and paste before I click “Submit Comment.”

  3. (not sure what happened with the comment structure, but I read it just fine!)

    Great comment! In laying out this theory I generally stayed away from analyzing the quality of the contestants, which was very much on purpose (if you’re interested in my thoughts in that area, check out my recaps of every episode on this site!).

    I think part of the genius of Blake’s plan is that it’s not reliant on having the best singer. Some think Danielle is the best contestant this season, some don’t – but the idea is that over the weeks, the voting audience has shifted heavily towards people who believe the former and away from people who think the latter. Choosing a “best” contestant is a slippery concept because everyone applies different standards as well as their own tastes; but by loading up with country artists, Blake has stacked the deck with fans who believe country singers are the best contestants.

    And again, this isn’t criticism. I agree that Blake’s been entirely upfront with his plan, and he’s not doing anything under-handed.

    • The impression I have from Blake is that he does think Danielle is the best singer even though he praises all his team. Having said that, I agree that, in principle, he just wants a country artist to win so any one of his team could achieve that aim. I suppose the way in which the voting audience seems to have embraced his plan is a kind of ‘Pavlovian Dogs’ response to Blake’s ‘experiment’ :)

  4. I love how you created your theory. It is true that it is all but the game plan of Blake, but yeah, I give him the credit for being that smart to put this all up! He really knows how to make the voting people love his contestants, and buy their tunes. I am not much into country music myself, but I am actually enjoying what’s happening in the show now. Contrary to everyone, I am not shocked by Judith Hill’s elimination as I saw it coming, she’s a real artist, but not the type of artist most people want to watch. Most people usually love to see someone bloom into a great singer (cue: stories of their simple life before The Voice), as if it is all a fairy tale.

    I am absolutely very excited on next week’s performance and elimination! This is getting really exciting!

    • Thanks! I think you could absolutely make the case that Danielle is the “best” contestant this season, though again that means different things to different people. What makes me think the voting composition has changed is the fact that country singers do not traditionally do well on ‘The Voice’, yet they are dominating this season. The declining ratings among young people – something that did not happen in season 3 – is the smoking gun that something is going on with the audience. I’m still enjoying the show too, but I do think a lot of non-country fans have dropped off and been replaced with country fans.

      • It actually fascinates me to see the results of the voting. I am not from America, so I am not familiar with the voting composition, but I still believe this has to be the most interesting season yet, in terms of waiting for the results – especially after Itunes failing to predict the outcome.

        I just hope people will not start hating Team Blake just because he has a complete team – that would really be unfair. I am not sure as well if people will like Amber more with recent happenings , there’s something in her that is so competitive that she seems to hate everybody now (See the latest The Voice Aftershow on Youtube) – I love her but it’s just that I love to see them have fun more than compete agrresively.

        • Why would Amber not be competitive in a competition? In the Yearbook bonus scenes on “The Voice,” several contestants said she was most likely to be the cheerleader and coaxing people on. She even said last night’s results sucked because her team was so good. Not her. HER TEAM. The Swon Brothers said they thought they were leaving in the last bonus scene. Sasha said she was surprised she stayed and brought tissue so she wouldn’t cry again (her and Judith are apparently buddies because they both voted each other as “Cutest Couple” for the Yearbook segment). The only people who stayed quiet were Michelle and Danielle.

  5. I’ll come from a different line of thinking: I love country music (specifically Blake Shelton, Jerrod Niemann and Brad Paisley). There’s something about those Swon Brothers that grabs me every time. Blake did an interview awhile back where he commented on the “old farts” who don’t like new country. The reason I can’t get into Holly is because she’s very much old country. She croons. She whines. She feels sorry for herself. When she starts singing about dogs, she’ll officially get the Old Country crown. Just the opposite with Danielle. I’ve already compared her to Vicki from “Small Wonder” and stand by it. But every SINGLE time I get into a debate on the FB The Voice page with Danielle fans, it’s always because of descriptions of her being adorable/cute/little/young. That does not make a great singer. USHER WAS ADORABLE, CUTE, LITTLE AND YOUNG, and when his voice started changing, he got dropped. The Biebs was, too. MJ was. I don’t care how adorable you are. I want to hear you sing and perform. There are so many young artists who can rock a crowd, but watch her during the “Play Something Country” performance. She looks around lost through the entire performance. She needs to live.

    I don’t hate Danielle as a performer. She can sing. But nothing about her doesn’t look like something someone created from a drawing book.

    However, I don’t think Blake plotted to have a country show. I think that happened by accident. If you recall early on, he kept trying to coax Judith HIll and Sasha Allen his way. Sure, he made jokes about doing it so if he lost to Shakira then he’d get a hug or a kiss, but he wanted those artists. I think once he realized that country artists were gunning for him as much as he was gunning for them, it all came together. That’s when he decided to eliminate Grace because she was veering left from his new country plan.

    I know this’ll make you cringe but I don’t even have an issue with Blake winning. But I want it to be with The Swon Brothers, not Danielle. The Swons actually have talent and can keep a crowd entertained the entire time. But my gawd, I think Judith and Sarah both have better voices and just made terrible song choices one particular week (I liked Sarah’s but clearly I’m losing that vote compared to countless articles I read complaining about her). Amber is the underdog and she can sing her butt off. If she wins, Blake will still glimmer with pride because she’s still got country in her swag.

    But if Michelle wins, I will stand on my desk at work and do that crouch dance she does in utter, unapologetic and complete joy!

    P.S. I think Adam is going to be without Amber. Overly patriotic people are losing their minds on Twitter and on LA Times articles about his “hate this country” remark. I think they won’t vote for Amber to spite him.

    • I love country music as well!!!!!!

      But I think I want Michelle to win, for the very reason that I would not like seeing Adam and Blake win this season. Haha!

  6. That happens to me, too, if i don’t type the captcha correctly. When it asks you to type it again, it changes all the apostrophes to back slashes. Happened to me one time and then I learned to always copy and paste before I click “Submit Comment.”

  7. From the point of view of a relative newcomer to country music, I have to say that Blake has been a genius at picking songs for Danielle that she can do well and that appeal to the wider pop audience. (Danielle has said she wants to be a country/pop artist.) Her performances of “Maybe It Was Memphis,” “Wasted,” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California” may not appeal to classic country purists, but they certainly grab the casual listeners like me who are not as sophisticated about country music as those folks and who don’t care that much about labels. We just know what we like when we hear it.

    Song choices are crucial, and it’s very difficult to know beyond gut instinct what will motivate people to vote for a particular artist for a given song. Shakira admitted as much during this week’s broadcast.

    • Thanks for your comment! I agree that Blake has handled Danielle very well, and that she would be a strong contender on any season of ‘The Voice’. However, if you’re entirely discounting any change in the composition of the voting audience, I think it’s much harder to explain The Swon Brothers and Holly Tucker advancing to the top-6. Whatever you think of the Swons, there is absolutely no precedent on the show for them to be around. I have a very hard time believing that if you put the Swons in season 3’s field of contestants (with season 3’s voters), they’d still be on the show.

  8. IMO Judith was the only artist who was already a star. Drop dead stunning-mesmerizing even-with such an edgy, creative range who could put her own turn to even the most middle of the road pop tune. I’ve always felt the material most of the contestants get to work with is pretty middle of the road and schmaltzy. Danielle and Michelle have some naturalness to their talents but are still pretty amateur, cannot believe the Swon Bros did Okie from Muskogie-even though OK deserves support. Sasha is way too pouty and feigned sensitive unfortunately as she has huge pipes. Seems out of whack to me. The idea that Judith’s prior experience w MJ disadvantaged her doesn’t cut it-many of the contestants have performed before-some for years! Several of them are repeat contenders. I do believe that she was just too etherial and avant garde for the middle america who was voting for country acts. I myself am a senior citizen over 60 so I guess I’m not in the bell curve along with the rest of my generation.

  9. I think most of you underestimate Blake’s LIKEABILITY and CHARM.

    He has more charm than Ceelo, Xtina, Usher, Shakira or Adam. There is even this scientifically done poll by an independent marketing firm, telling he is well liked by Latinos, Asians, Young, Old , White and even Black audiences. As you may have guessed he is not the most liked in one of them but overall he is by far the most liked one.

    No, It is not about Song Choices or Artists. Come on use your head,.. obscure unknown genre specific songs doing better than flawlessly executed hits like Skyfall or other better performances by more talented contestants on other teams.

    It is definitely not about Blake’s tactics, he is not a genius strategist like you think or even that smart. He shots himself in the foot ten times a day by saying stupid stuff. He came close to destroying his own carrier I don’t know how many times in the past decade.

    Do I have to spell each one out? He is his own worst enemy. If he have been smart he would have been a bigger star. He hold himself back 7 years simply because he wanted to be just like his deceased big brother and supported a mullet, is just one example. He always aliantes himself to the rest of the world because of unpopular ideas about guns, hunting, drinking, war and million other just wrong and morally wrong ideas. So he will never ever going to be big outside country or USA unlike lets say Taylor Swift despite his likeability.

    It is not about Country Music or Audience Shift. If he was a Pop/Jazz singer like Michael Buble The Voice still would be The Blake Shelton show simply because he is a brighter star, despite being put against more worldwide known stars he overshadows them always.

    Blake still won with a black RB artist who is the total opposite of what ‘country audience’ wanted on season 2. So stop talking about Country music taking over, it is not like city folk love songs about dirt roads or cows, but everybody loves Blake well may be not Xtina. But she doesn’t love anybody but Xtina.

    When he did not have a good country artist. He single handedly turned a Avril wanna be punk rock chick to a country hopeful and then won with her on season 3.

    He even almost won Season 1 too but he kinda robbed there by show runners, because show executives wanted someone specific to win, and hinted him as the winner weeks before the first episode started.

    Blake always said he wanted to win with a country artist. But he never had a star material country artist until season 4. I bet deep down he wanted fellow Okies, Swon Brothers to succeed, still he praised them both equally and left it to the audience. And they picked Danielle.

    About show not generating a huge star, that is not about talent that is about money, spending enough marketing money.
    Record Label is not spending enough money or even trying to create a star, neither does NBC.

    Even sad little 100.000 award versus 5.000.000 from other show says it all. I respect an artist even auditioning for The Voice with pitiful deal from Label and NBC. They should spend 5-10 million to create a worldwide star. That is a fact. But they don’t care about creating a star, so instead they shamelessly pocket 50-100 million generated from #1 show on TV to the various executives. Yes most of the revenues does not go to coaches despite what you may think.

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