Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ratings Wars

[Last night the BBC's new talent show The Voice went up against the ITV juggernaut Britain's Got Talent.  Was it one reality show too far?]

Well, who would have thought Britain had so much talent? Saturday evening has been turned into the long night of the wannabe.

This morning the TV trade press (Broadcast Magazine) announced that Britain’s Got Talent had “triumphed” over the BBC’s new talent show The Voice. Nothing could be further from the truth, for during the 20 minutes period that the two shows went head to head, the BBC actually won convincingly, by nine million to ITV’s six and a half, even though the average ratings for the whole of Britain’s Got Talent were rather higher.

Take it from me (as one who has spent quite a portion of his career supplying shows to the BBC for the traditional Saturday night battle), getting nine million to switch on (and stay watching) your first show is a more than a success, it’s a barnstorming, miraculous, champagne-popping triumph. I can’t recall another debut that came anywhere close: even shows that have gone on to become hits, like Strictly Come Dancing, had less than 5 million on their first airing.

But despite this talk of ratings wars (and I promise, Britain’s press will be full of it for the next two months, so we’d better get used to it), this wasn’t a battle of equals at all. In fact, when most of us thought the talent show market had been saturated, both networks managed to come up with surprising twists on the tired old genre.

The Voice really is what it says on the tin. Four judges sit with their backs to the singers, so the contestants perform in front of four impenetrable chair backs, willing them to swing round before they finish their performance. Influenced neither by looks nor backstory, the judges’ decision is based solely on the voice they hear. If a judge does turn to face a contestant, then that judge becomes their coach for the rest of the series.

Several failed: Phil the delivery driver with his grey-haired Nan sobbing in the wings, who undoubtedly would have had the Britain’s Got Talent judges begging for more, went home emptyhanded.

But where it gets clever is that when two or more judges pick the same person, then, for the first time I’ve ever seen in a talent show, all the power goes to the contestant. Several singers were chosen by all four celebrity judges, who then turned into groveling lackeys as they tried to woo the candidate to join their team. It was like watching real recording industry pitches: they promised the earth – world tours and endless riches; they name dropped without shame (producer and rapper mentioned “Mike” Jackson every third sentence, whilst Tom Jones dragged up an anecdote about Elvis). Meanwhile the wannabe, who frankly would have been quite happy with just another glass of beer in the BBC green room, had to pick a judge to entrust with their future. My favourite moment was when one candidate completely turned the tables by putting in an X Factor-long pause in the middle of the announcement of his choice, throwing judges, audience and even the TV producers, into confusion.

What was strange about The Voice, though, was that in a typically BBC way, they only featured attractive, young contestants in the first show – thereby losing the drama of the judges turning round and facing a Susan Boyle. This is a format designed for a disconnect between vocal ability and looks, yet they haven’t exploited it - yet.

Not so Britain’s Got Talent. Incredibly, they found themselves another Boyle in an extremely large teenager called Jonathan, who sings like an operatic angel, albeit with an underwhelming though more attractive girl singer called Charlotte. I wonder how many weeks it will take for Simon Cowell to split them up and give Charlotte the boot. Jonathan is a star in the making.

But the real hit of BGT was David Walliams. He and Cowell are the new Morecambe and Wise. I have never seen Cowell look more uncomfortable and edgy (and, as a consequence, perform better) as Walliams ribbed him mercilessly. That relationship alone is enough to turn me into a Saturday night couch potato.


Sandy said...

It was pretty emotional for big Jonathan, clearly uncomfortable in front of the audience and there is no way he would have been there but for Charlotte. Is she there because she likes the guy and wants to help him or because she sees a snap at fame she would not otherwise get if she didn't stand beside the boy who will become a big opera star? We could barely hear her an I'm guessing she will be allowed to sing with him right up until the real money starts to change hands among those in power. Then poor Jonathan will have to take a tough decision about his lovely friend who, if he couldn't sing, probably would cross the road to avoid him. Or am I being a bitter old cynic?

peter said...

I think BGT will knock the socks off the Voice. Simon Cowell kept all those earnest dedicated street dancers out of Ep 1 and each small story seemed to be freshly minted. I thought the Voice backstories banal and what about those screaming banshees called relatives locked in a soundproof room watching on a monitor. More "realistic" to have them in the wings, surely.
No, I won't be pushing my button to turn over from ITV HD in the coming weeks.