At 6:30pm on Saturday 24 March, BBC1 launched The Voice - its bid for a major presence during spring weekends to complement Strictly Come Dancing's position in the autumn schedule. BBC1 bought the new format, which plays on NBC in the US, for a reported £25 million over two years. Much was riding on it for, if it worked, BBC1 could command the springtime months and threaten ITV1's dominance of singing talent shows.
The Voice began impressively and, significantly, was soon beating ITV1's Britain’s Got Talent when they overlapped. Importantly for BBC1 it was attracting very big audiences amongst the younger age groups; the Beeb had spent gold and struck oil and ITV would have been worried. The planning of the BBC1 2013 schedule would have been confronted by an exquisite conundrum - how to make the most of this new super hit.
Then cracks appeared: 10 million viewers became 8 million and then fewer than 6 million. Young audiences began drifting away and from a huge hit that could pick off opposition at will, The Voice became a reasonably successful show that rivals might not necessarily fear. The 2013 schedule dilemma became less exquisite and more troublesome: the conundrum shifted from confidently thinking how best to capitalise on a hit show, to how to give it its best chance to re-establish itself.
The show’s inventor John de Mol has admitted that format changes might have to be made and the live shows need new ideas to become "a little more exciting". The schedule’s job now is to create the best framework to deliver an audience for the 2013 series: any changes need to be given a chance to recover the initial buzz around the programme.
And so the long-term poker game begins.
If BBC1 launches the 2013 series in the same place it risks ITV1 beginning Britain’s Got Talent earlier in the year again. After another strong series the talent show will be the more confident of the two and could knock The Voice for six from the off. Alternatively, The Voice could start earlier in the year (but not too close to the X Factor finale at the end of December).
ITV1 are less likely to bring Britain’s Got Talent into the traditionally slower post-Christmas advertising period, leaving BBC1 more freedom to play The Voice later in those cold, dark evenings. All things being equal, and providing the production timetable allows, starting it earlier in the year must be tempting. If it doesn’t re-ignite then, well, the schedule tried everything and maybe the format is just flawed. Scheduling is often just a long and varied list of things you can’t do, but The Voice is a huge priority for BBC1 and all options should be made available.
The ratings for Saturday’s finale were just over 7 million which is OK, but The Voice’s strong start and hefty price tag meant it needed to be better. When The Voice was achieving over 10 million viewers, BBC1’s Saturday night schedule for early 2013 was probably being built with confidence and brio; as the ratings began to slip a more defensive approach would have been required. With the right format tweaks and much pondering of the schedule The Voice at least has one more chance to recapture its early promise.