When you’re the controller of BBC1, people come to you to pitch ideas. But Danny Cohen, the channel’s current head, was so keen to get his hands on one new entertainment format that he was the one who ended up doing the pitching. He even flew to Holland to sweet-talk its creator, the legendary reality TV executive John de Mol.
This Saturday night, viewers will be able to judge whether Cohen’s trip was worth it, when that format – a singing talent show called The Voice – finally airs. The Voice is the biggest gamble that BBC1 has taken for years. The channel’s reputation, not to mention a big chunk of its money, are both at stake.
Cohen struck a deal with de Mol to make two series of The Voice at a reported cost of £22million – making it the BBC’s most expensive live entertainment show. But Cohen has good reason to be confident: since its debut in the Netherlands, local versions of The Voice have been hits around the world.
And on NBC in America, its second season is doing the unthinkable and beating the daddy of all talent shows, American Idol, in the ratings.
“I think what the BBC should be doing, in terms of public service, is giving the audience the best programming that is available, the best creativity that is available,” says Mark Linsey, the corporation’s controller of entertainment commissioning.
“If you come across an internationally successful format that is a wonderful programme – like The Apprentice or The Voice – then I think we should be looking at those.”
What The Voice cannot claim, though, is originality. With its line-up of auditioning hopefuls, live shows and telephone voting, it looks a lot like The X Factor, minus Simon Cowell. And, by scheduling it for Saturday nights in the spring, Cohen has pitted it directly against Cowell’s other ITV warhorse, Britain’s Got Talent.
A senior ITV insider says that “the BBC have very much put their tanks on our lawn”, and it’s a fair bet that the commercial network won’t take the competition lying down. It has already scrambled to bring BGT’s customary April launch forward to this Saturday, the same night as The Voice.
BBC1 might hope to gain an advantage by being the first on air with its talent show, with The Voice starting an hour before BGT at 7pm. But ITV insiders point out that the available TV audience is bigger during the 8–9pm slot that BGT will dominate.
It would be a heroic performance for the opening episode of The Voice to actually beat BGT – an established show, with Simon Cowell himself returning to the judging panel – in the overnight ratings.
Last year’s BGT opener scored 9.9 million viewers. Contrast this year’s biggest new show, BBC1’s Call the Midwife, which achieved 7.95 million for its first episode. (And Britain’s Got Talent’s own first-ever episode, in 2007, which managed just 4.9 million.) This is a battle that ITV and Cowell literally cannot afford to lose.
The huge ratings scored by The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent give ITV1’s overall viewing share a much-needed boost, and that in turn directly affects the rates it can charge advertisers across its schedule.
Unsurprisingly, The X Factor has grown and grown, taking up no fewer than 42 hours of ITV1 airtime last year. But that comes at a price: The X Factor costs nearly £800,000 an hour, making it a £30-million-a-year investment for ITV. That compares to less than £600,000 an hour for Dancing on Ice, and just £370,000 an hour for BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.
This weekend will be one of the most costly in history for ITV1. The commercial channel has not only BGT and the last episode of Harry Hill’s TV Burp on Saturday, but then the two-hour final of Dancing on Ice and its new drama, Titanic, on Sunday.
Titanic is thought to be the most expensive drama ever made in the UK, at almost £3 million an episode – considerably more than Downton Abbey. But The Voice is also a massive investment for the BBC, especially as – unlike Cowell and ITV – they don’t have a dizzying array of ways to make money from the show.
As well as its ad breaks, The X Factor also profits from sponsorship, phone voting, its website, iTunes downloads of each week’s performances, merchandising, the winner’s record deal and the finalists’ live tour.
The BBC’s less commercial motives will chime with viewers who see Cowell’s shows as exploitative. And to win the PR battle, Cohen will be nervous that the glitzy show opens the BBC to accusations of being too populist at a time when very “public service” offerings, such as BBC4, are being slashed to save money.
The BBC’s Mark Linsey won’t set a ratings target for The Voice, saying only that entertainment shows “have to earn the right to large ratings”. But, he adds, The Voice, with its more nurturing format, has intrinsic public service credentials.
Its four celebrities – Jessie J, Tom Jones, Danny O’Donoghue and Will.i.am – are billed as “coaches” rather than “judges”. In a neat twist, they sit with their backs to the contestants’ first auditions, so they can hear rather than see them.
“Our coaches are just steeped in singing,” declares Linsey. “That’s what they’re about, that’s why they’re doing this show – because they want to encourage great singing and get involved with mentoring these contestants, to give them a chance in a competitive industry. That’s what makes this show so different and so exciting.”
Viewers will, of course, be the judges of that. But the coaches will need to work hard to impress the audience – and justify their fees. Will.i.am is reported to be earning £500,000 from the show. (Cohen went to meet him, too, on the rapper’s private jet as it was on the tarmac for a stopover in London.)
Indeed, the public-service BBC has plenty of commercial bills to pay for The Voice. And, unlike Strictly Come Dancing – which, in its international guise as Dancing with the Stars, has become the world’s most successful TV format – The Voice won’t make any money for licence fee-payers in overseas sales.
A senior TV industry executive estimates that de Mol will take upwards of five per cent of the budget as a “format fee”, and that the production company Wall to Wall (owned by the American giant Time Warner) might get eight to ten per cent as a “production fee” – between them, that could account for over £1.6 million of the first series’ budget.
And no fewer than three sets will be built, at the BBC’s own TV Centre (for the blind auditions), Fountain Studios in north-west London (for the “battles”, where the coaches pit their acts against each other), and Elstree Studios (for the live shows, where the public gets to vote).
But the company that could benefit the most is Universal Music. Not only will the record giant give a recording contract to the series’ winner – but three of the four coaches (Jessie J, Tom Jones and Will.i.am) are also Universal acts.
“Universal have to be doing this because they want market share,” says Mark Goodier, former Radio 1 DJ and now a powerful figure in the radio industry through his production company Wise Buddah.
Good news for Universal, perhaps, but less good for pop fans who yearn for new talent that has not been spat out by a reality TV show.
Veteran Radio 2 DJ Paul Gambaccini, the Radio 2 DJ known as the “professor of pop”, says: “The Voice is a karaoke competition, full stop. Although the American series was fantastic to rejuvenate the careers of two of the judges [Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine], it didn’t give us a viable artist.”
Ultimately it is the music that will likely make or break The Voice. “It really depends on whether they find a star or not,” says Goodier simply. “And I have no idea whether they have.”
The Voice UK is on BBC1 tonight at 7:00pm.