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.