There's a line in Robert Redford's 1994 film, Quiz Show, which reveals much about the American TV viewing public. A producer justifies the spurious methods of his show, "Twenty-One" thus: "The audience didn't tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money."
Thanks to "American Idol," viewers now understand a salient fact about the music industry. It's a fact that harshly chafes the soft noses of anyone who has ever attended Juilliard or even the Berklee College of Music for a single day: Singers are a dime a dozen. Singers with talent are maybe a dollar a dozen. The point is, if you've got talent, you'd better be able to sell it. "American Idol" gave singers that opportunity.
We know that the moment we tune in for is not the soaring, show-stopping high note. It's the moment between the end of that note and the first line out of any judge's mouth. That's the moment people set their DVRs for. Everything around that moment is just filler. In light of this, this one moment in an hour, how can a savvy network planner hope to keep things fresh? Surely they must know, if no one else does, that nothing is forever.
It seems NBC's executives have already hit upon the answer. The evidence is "The Voice" winning the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. What led up to that award was the acknowledgment that these shows, like their subjects, were in dire need of a good pitch to move them up in the public's – read, "judge's" – eye.
"The Voice" has sold itself as a kinder, gentler "Idol." Absent is the audience-approved schadenfreude of Simon Cowell dissolving unworthy contestants with urbane acid. We tune in to watch “The Voice” to see encouragement, tough love, and empathy.
In other words, it's all about the judges.
"Idol" gave us the likes of Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey, celebrities with rivers of tabloid ink behind them. Who hasn't turned on the radio the day after a show to hear armchair critics' assessment of Ms. Abdul's behavior, Ms. Carey's wardrobe, or the catty in-fighting? Not too many words wasted on the singers. Not in recent times, anyway. It's about which judge has the best retort. It's about that moment right after the high note ends.
All this points to a basic flaw in the show's design: It can't be sustained for very long before all but the show's most ardent admires grow weary. Producers of the show by contrast, have given us judges with a collective heart. They have chemistry. They tease each other playfully. They are folks you'd watch the Voice on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, it's clear that the focus of the show itself, in theory, is the singers. The very fact that the judges physical turn their backs to the stage in order to listen to the contestants without prejudice demonstrates a powerful message to the show's main competitor. Looks mean nothing, in theory, that is.
After all, we tune in to reality competitions with the knowledge that reality doesn't take place on a stage. Recently it was revealed that while "Biggest Loser" contestants are genuinely surprised at their weigh-in results, that is, in fact, a dummy scale they’re standing on. This does not matter one bit to the show's fans. Nor should it. That's not what they're tuned in for. They want to watch the money, or in this case, the pounds.
The heightened reality of reality TV takes its viewers to somewhere just beyond their couches, to a world of people just like them; plain, ordinary folks who get to mingle with the likes of Adam Levine, and get words of gentle encouragement, not insults. If that isn't escapist entertainment, nothing is.
"The Voice" is a new direction for reality competition shows to follow. Whether or not they'll actually follow it is anyone's guess. But network executives have an unwritten, unspoken rule: Follow the Emmy.