The making of ratings blockbuster The Voice

Jason Mountney goes on the set of Channel Nine’s talent search series, The Voice, to see how the format, based on an international franchise, has come together. What ingredients have gone into making this certified hit that’s rated more than two million viewers on three consecutive nights?

Mike Goldman has one of the toughest jobs on the set of the Nine network’s new talent show, The Voice. He not only has to narrate the show, but also keep the audience from losing their enthusiasm as they realise shooting TV programs takes a lot longer than the one-hour bursts they see in their lounge rooms. A lot longer. 

An ecstatic audience in the background is just one piece of the puzzle Nine and production company Shine are using to elevate the talent show to the much-vaunted “water-cooler TV” status that brings big advertising bucks and gets viewers to stick around. And with a massive advertising campaign featuring buses, billboards and plenty of station promos, it is obvious Nine, alongside the five major sponsors – Ford Australia, Vodafone, Insurance Australia Group, AustralianSuper and Swisse Vitamins, who are all helping to bankroll the multimillion dollar production – are serious about this ‘shiny floor’ format.

The set of Nine's talent series The Voice

Much of the crowd is made up of friends and family supporting the acts and it is up to Goldman to ensure everything recorded in the studio has a backdrop of dancing, standing ovations, smiles, outstretched hands and plenty of clapping. Even as filming enters its third bum-numbing hour. And its fourth. With fluffed lines, sub-par delivery and having the judges sing the same song three times, Goldman has his work cut out.

A heavily skewed teenage and 20-something female crowd has gathered at the Fox Studios complex in Sydney’s inner east for the recording of the ‘battle round’ of The Voice, a reality talent program devised in the home of Big Brother, the Netherlands. The successful talent show format has gone on to launch franchises in such lucrative markets as Britain, the United States and even Albania.

In the past few years, talent shows have been big earners for the terrestrial networks. Channel Seven’s Australia’s Got Talent and The X-Factor have followed Australian Idol and in terms of the current television schedule, The Voice is taking on another entertainment goliath – Seven’s Dancing With the Stars. The first bout left Seven’s show limping off with blood on its ballet flats as The Voice picked up more than two million viewers and 34 per cent of Sunday-night viewers, compared with Dancing’s 25.7 per cent.

Adrian Swift, the director of development at Nine, says he is “thrilled” at the show’s success.

“Typically these shows do dip, but the battle rounds are incredibly strong,” he says, adding that the “buzz on social media” makes him confident numbers will stay healthy. Swift says any dip in the audience in the first few weeks will be obliterated in the final rounds. “The live shows will really build into a crescendo,” he says. “We’ll have the artists performing with their coaches.”

But do our airwaves need another talent show? Do we need more overblown vocal gymnastics that verge on caterwauling, followed by syrupy encouragements to “follow the dream” from judges? Swift certainly thinks so. He believes “great singers performing for great coaches” is what elevates The Voice over rival talent shows.

“We have better singers, better coaches and more jeopardy,” he says. “We’re confident we’re going to get some stars out of this.” The blind audition process that characterises the show’s first round was also used when finding original contestants. No-one’s face was seen by the panel. Swift thinks this gives the show more credibility, as contestants are judged on vocal abilities alone.

On set, Scottish-born host Darren McMullen tries to explain the show’s three-stage format in a TV-friendly few seconds to the audience, who respond with confused expressions.

As any one of the millions of people who have caught the show so far knows,  the judges are also the contestants’ coaches and they chose entrants to mentor in the first round – sometimes begging to offer their services if another judge also expressed interest. This was done with their backs to the audition stage, so no-one is swayed by a pretty face or other element. As Adrian Swift says, “this is all about the voice”.

Unlike previous talent shows, which depend on the premise of propelling ordinary people the audience identifies with to stardom, The Voice features a number of contestants with experience in the industry. “For some performers, this is their last big chance,” says Swift.

This recruitment policy means better singers generally, but no Susan Boyle-style, plucked-from-nowhere feelgood stories.


Meet the judges

The four judging coaches might have more credibility than competing talent show equivalents, such as the divisive Kyle Sandilands and superannuated Mark Holden, but they are still hardly A List. The biggest catch is British pop star Seal, but even he has been out of the spotlight for much of the past decade. He is joined by Australia’s sweetheart Delta Goodrem; Joel Madden, front man for emo-lite outfit Good Charlotte; and country singer Keith Urban, probably better known here as actress Nicole Kidman’s husband than a performer in his own right.

Even from the nosebleed seats, the tall, commanding Seal has real presence and a U2 cover version performed by the four shows his vocal abilities have not diminished – blowing the other three off the stage. Once he drops the faux-hard man persona, Madden is very funny, as is Urban. And Goodrem looks glamorous – if in need of a burger and fries.

Where all four fail is the meandering, ponderous judgments they hand down, interspersed with complaints about how difficult it is to vote off contestants. Thankfully, the team in the edit suite are good at their job. Executive producer Julie Ward says selecting sufficiently high-profile judges, negotiating terms with them, and working around foreign touring and recording schedules took “about five months”.

“The distance coming to Australia makes getting judges a challenge,” she says. “But our success is determined by the calibre of judges.”


On set

The set, based around the concept of a boxing ring, is impressive. Behind it is a six-piece band, supported by roadies sporting the requisite beer bellies. Contestants enter via tunnels and the audience seating is steep, giving the set a gladiatorial feel.

Leigh Aramberri, senior producer on the program, says that as part of a global franchise, the set design is expected to conform to a rough outline, although some local changes have been made. Aramberri says: “We wanted a cage fight, stadium arena sort of feel. It should feel like an arena; like a rock circus.” The local version also introduced the tunnels that the ‘battle round’ contestants use to enter the ring for their duelling duets. Swift says the set looks “fabulous”.

“I wanted to make sure you see the money on TV, not behind the scenes,” he says. “It’s a challenge for money to not get sucked up in processes.”

Outside the Fox Studios set, Sydney broadcasting company Global Television is using, for the first time, its HD6 van, which can seat up to 31 technical staff in a relatively compact space that opens out once the vehicle is parked. Marc Segar, general manager of Global Television, says the mobile studio, which is the company’s latest acquisition for its eight-strong broadcast fleet, has a layout that makes it ideal for the project. “The main feature is not really technical but is the available internal space on this particular truck,” he says. “It has a large open area and a big space to work in.”

On set, Segar says, Global records every camera “and cuts in the truck”. There are 11 high-definition cameras on the set.

“This is the next generation of facility, with a lot of virtual features that help us with tight turnarounds between projects,” he adds. “The production gallery is right next to the tapeless workflow area, which is also very neat.”

The vehicle has a Sony MVS7000X, a multiprocessing vision switcher, that can also produce 3D content. From the truck, the tapeless operation involves sending hard drives with data to post-production – although tape is still used as a back up. This reduces production times, which will be handy as the show moves towards the pointy end of the series.

“The final shows are all live,” Segar says. “It doesn’t change what we do inside the truck, but it does mean we will have a satellite transmission path from Fox Studios to the Nine network. It does change the way the production is put together, more for timing as it is shot live, and not for post production.”

Supervising producer on post-production, Kate Shelbourn, says even the final live broadcasts involve the post-production team, thanks to “reality components” that have to be spliced in.

With its diverse sources of file footage of contestants being coached and the multi-camera shoot inside Fox Studios, the process involves some “intricate weaving together” of all the elements. “These shows are big; there’s a lot of footage to get through. And it has a very tight turnaround. It’s a big team and we have some of our best people working on the show,” Shelbourn says. According to Shine’s co-executive producer, Geraldine Orrock, about 35 people are involved in the process, including 15 editors, eight producers, transcribers, audio and online staff.

Show me the money

Nine and Shine are coy about how much money has been thrown at the production. But bringing together a massive set, huge crew and reasonably high-profile judges has resulted in a professional-looking end product.

Scheduling wise, the show’s launch at the start of the second quarter ratings period, coupled with the return of Nine’s proven formats The Block and Celebrity Apprentice, give the network plenty of opportunity to cross promote, an ideal environment for ongoing success.

With the blind auditions playing out from Sunday through to Tuesday nights, maintaining a steady audience on all three days, scheduling for the final rounds is yet to be released.

There’s no question that the network has a hit on its hands and TV pundits and advertisers alike will be watching in coming weeks to see if this talent contest manages to hold strong.

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

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