This week sees the first episodes of both the last BBC series of The Voice and the last ever series of American Idol. The future of Britain’s top singing show, The X Factor, also looks uncertain. 2016 will give us one final year of the big music contests in the familiar scheduling pattern, but from there the future is open. Will new talent shows take their place or will it be the end of an era?
First, let’s look at the future of The X Factor. As the UK TV talent show that’s produced the most successful artists, with 13 contestants still signed to major label deals today, its demise would have a noticeable effect on the music industry. The latest winner’s single may have peaked at an underwhelming no.9 in the UK chart, but there are currently 7 singles by X Factor alumni in the top 40. Traditional pop acts like boybands and girlbands struggle to break through without the exposure brought by 10 weeks on prime time TV. The loss of The X Factor would be a blow to pop. Not to mention, big trouble for Sony and Syco, where X Factor acts have brought in reliable income for the past decade.
The X Factor brings financial reward not only for the acts it produces, but also those it promotes in other ways. Performing on the show is one of very few remaining TV opportunities that actually translates into sales and chart success for artists today, and it’s enough to convince major international acts to visit the UK. Plus, when an artist’s song is performed well on The X Factor by a contestant, both the cover and the original often rise up the iTunes chart. For a new song this can be a watershed moment, such as when Fleur East’s cover of Uptown Funk was so popular that the release date for Mark Ronson’s original had to be moved several weeks earlier to meet demand.
It’s clear that the end of The X Factor would be a problem for the British music industry, but that’s not a concern for ITV, the party with the ultimate power to cancel the show. The 2015 series was trounced in the ratings by long-time rival Strictly Come Dancing, and even beaten by Countryfile. The tabloids rejoiced at the opportunity to dramatise the situation, and give the fun-haters of Britain fuel for their moans. The show has recovered from ratings dips in the past (2006/7 was a wobbly time) but in 2015 the average viewing figures for the series declined for the fifth year in a row. At this point, the brand name is sullied, a reversal of fortunes is unlikely, and ITV need to work out when to cut their losses.
However, I don’t think ITV will be keen to ditch The X Factor just yet. Ratings may have declined, but they were very high in the first place. A hit entertainment format of this level is rare to find, and an unpopular replacement for The X Factor would mean loss of ad sales in the crucial pre-Christmas period, as well as a very embarrassing public faux pas for ITV. The only way to lessen this risk is to replace The X Factor with a show that has proven popularity. One option would be to move Britain’s Got Talent to the autumn/winter slot, or another is to introduce an alternative singing show that’s already familiar to the public. And this, of course, brings me to The Voice.
I was excited when The Voice came to the UK, because I’d already seen and loved the US version. In the US, the coaches have natural chemistry, genuine musical knowledge, talent and credibility, and clearly enjoy making the programme. The host Carson Daly is warm yet professional, and has a history with music TV via TRL. The show hasn’t produced big chart stars, but that’s fine because winning The Voice is a great achievement, an end in itself. Unfortunately, the BBC failed to replicate the fun yet sincere atmosphere of NBC’s production. Perhaps us Brits are too self-aware and cynical to ever achieve that balance, but the BBC followed the wrong path from the start by mistaking a music show for an entertainment show. I believe The Voice would have been better in a weeknight slot (preferably on Channel 4!), but the BBC were so set on finding their X Factor competitor that they spent five years and millions of pounds trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
A 5-minute promo trailer for the new series of The Voice was released a few days ago (but has since been taken offline), and I watched it in a strange conflicted state of cringe and boredom. I’ve never missed an episode of The Voice (or The X Factor, Pop Idol, Popstars etc.) before but it’s going to be a real challenge to persist with this series. Working out whether the BBC are trying to destroy its chances on ITV or naively hoping to end on a positive note is the only thing keeping me interested. At long last, in November, the BBC admitted defeat, and gave up the rights to The Voice, despite having a new series left to be shown. ITV bought the rights and announced that spin-off show The Voice Kids would air in 2017, but they’re yet to confirm what their plans are for The Voice itself.
If the BBC couldn’t produce the music-focused, light-hearted yet credible show that The Voice deserves to be, there’s no hope that ITV will achieve it. The format and the network are an even less comfortable fit. However, if anyone can make The Voice work for a Saturday night prime time audience, it’s ITV. Forget the depth and sincerity, just make it The X Factor with spinning chairs. I’m not totally convinced, but it could work. I would suggest moving Britain’s Got Talent to The X Factor’s current slot, and The Voice to the BGT slot, to avoid direct ratings comparisons between The Voice and The X Factor and give The Voice a fighting chance. Or if ITV don’t want to give up The X Factor just yet, they could make it bi-annual, alternating with The Voice or BGT, with the other show in the current BGT slot. There are many different ways they could go, and it will be interesting to see what approach they take. The future of the TV talent show in the UK is in ITV’s hands.
On a broader scale, it’s clear that the TV talent show concept is wearing thin not only in the UK, but around the world. American Idol will announce its 15th and final winner this spring, at the end of a series they’re calling “The Farewell Season.” Even The Voice US, which still attracts a high level of talent and has a positive image in the press, has lost a few million viewers compared to its heyday in 2013/14. In Sweden, attempts to launch The Voice and The X Factor failed, and their remaining talent show Idol gets an all-new judging panel this year. In Australia, The X Factor achieved its lowest average viewing figures ever in 2015, despite featuring a Kylie and Dannii duet in the final. What more do you want, Aussies?!
I don’t think the end of the talent show is here quite yet, but we do need someone to come up with a fresh new take on the concept soon if we want live music performance to have a continued presence on TV. Pop Idol took inspiration from shows like Opportunity Knocks as much as it did Popstars, so perhaps the next generation of talent shows will also combine something old and something new. I’d love to see someone finally manage to adapt the talent show for the online age. Attempts such as YouGeneration (Syco) and If I Can Dream (19 Entertainment) are better best forgotten, but a big player in video on demand like Netflix or YouTube could approach the challenge differently and make it feel relevant to young music fans. There will always be an audience for a talent show as long as it’s entertaining and introduces exciting new artists. We may have to suffer through a few more Ben Haenows and Stevie McCrories first, but I’m optimistic that there’s something better to come.