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Joanna Stephens looks at the world of singing talent formats, exploring new spins on the genre and its continuing success. The global format industry’s search for a shiny new prime-time entertainment format is almost a prime-time entertainment format in itself, complete with hopeful candidates, dreams of superstardom and ruthless elimination. In fact, many in the industry question whether “the next big thing” even exists in an increasingly fragmented marketplace, with so many broadcasters and platforms targeting so many different audiences.

Others, however, believe that a breakout format is still possible given the right celestial alignment of elements, creativity and luck. And some believe that the solution to the prime-time entertainment challenge may well lie in singing shows, with their triple threat of track record, dramatic potential and emotional traction. To see that singing is a truly universal draw, one need only consider Talpa Media’s juggernaut The Voice—the last game-changing talent format—which has clocked up 65 local productions, 500 million viewers in 180-plus territories and 55 million Facebook followers since 2010.

“When you look back, you realize that singing formats have always been among the strongest performers in prime-time entertainment because of the emotional connection and involvement they generate in audiences,” says Avi Armoza, founder and CEO of Armoza Formats. “We believe that singing is not something that’s going to disappear from prime time. The question is how you tell the story of a singing competition differently and in a more exciting and relevant way, coming in with a strong, fresh and unique patent, while learning from the knowledge that’s been accumulated from previously successful shows.”

So what is Talpa Media, the current titleholder in the singing format stakes, intending to do as an encore to The Voice, surely a tough act to follow by any standards? “We’re constantly working on creating new, long-lasting brands that can travel the world,” says Maarten Meijs, managing director of Talpa Global, the Dutch creative heavyweight’s distribution arm. He points to Talpa’s dedicated creative unit, which is tasked with developing “unique concepts ready for global rollout.” In the singing-contest genre, recent shows down the pipeline have included the celebrity-driven It Takes 2, now on air in Germany and heading into its second season in the Netherlands; and The Next Boy/Girl Band, which launched at MIPCOM last October and has since sold into multiple territories across Asia.

The trick, Meijs suggests, is to view entertainment formats as brands rather than single shows or concepts. The Voice is a prime example. In addition to the “mothership” property, its brand extensions include the spin-off show The Voice KidsThe Voice of the Ocean with Princess Cruises, online gaming and merchandise. This not only results in a richer commercial proposition for Talpa’s broadcast and production partners but also helps to keep the core format fresh and surprising, which is pivotal to the longevity of any entertainment show.

“And with our unique apps for The Voice and The Voice Kids, we extend the experience beyond the television screen,” Meijs adds. “We believe formats should connect with viewers across multiple platforms and touch points. In today’s television landscape, mindless entertainment isn’t enough—viewers want a content experience that they truly feel a part of.”

Armoza Formats is heading to MIPTV with its own spin on the genre with The Final Four. The format starts where most singing competitions end, with the selection of four star-quality finalists, selected by a trio of music professionals. The twist is that the show’s chosen finalists will be challenged in every episode by talented hopefuls seeking to win a place among “the final four” and enjoy the superstar lifestyle that goes with it. Anyone can apply to become a contestant by sending a clip via a dedicated app, but only the best will be chosen by the judges to challenge the finalists. Whether or not they succeed is down to the audience’s vote.

“The most successful part of many singing competitions are the auditions,” Armoza says. “Audiences love the drama, the emotions and the Cinderella stories inherent in this stage. The stories we tell throughout the entire season of The Final Four make the auditions the heart of the show.”

For Keren Shahar, Keshet International’s COO and president of distribution, authenticity has become an important part of the mix as the singing-competition genre has matured. “No one likes to feel duped by something they’re watching,” she observes. “The unveiling of true, world-class talent should be the standard. If you put someone through auditions because they are enjoyable to watch but can’t sing, you stand to lose the respect and loyalty of the audience.”

The temptation to over-construct is perhaps understandable, given the evolution of the singing-format genre. Back in the early 2000s, when the likes of Idols and Popstars first emerged as cultural phenomena, the idea of turning wannabes into overnight superstars was revolutionary in itself. While some of the early contestants did go on to achieve success—Will Young and Leona Lewis among them—many more faded back into anonymity. With shows increasingly failing to deliver on their promise, the novelty wore off, and producers began to look for other ways to engage audiences. Chronicling the “journey” along the road to fame and fortune offered a solution.

“The focus shifted to the stories behind the contestants—stories that were often sensationalized to be more emotive to viewers,” Shahar says. “People with no singing talent were cast for entertainment or sheer amusement purposes.” The results were often toe-curlingly embarrassing, if not downright cruel.

Talpa’s Meijs echoes the view of many when he says that one of the fundamental differences between the first generation of singing formats and today’s hit shows is the focus on positivity. “Singing competitions remain as popular as ever due to the timeless and universal attraction of music,” he says. “But there’s little interest today in content that makes fun of contestants—and nor is that something we as a company feel comfortable with. Rather, the focus should be on actual talent, as it is in The Voice and The Voice Kids.”

Shahar credits The Voice with the next step-change in the singing format’s evolution. “The blind auditions turned the spotlight from the contestants to the mentors. This was a big novelty and it also brought back more credibility. Only good talent could take part, and they were celebrated, treated respectfully and given constructive feedback.”

In 2013, Keshet launched Rising Star, billed as the first truly interactive talent show, and changed the game again by handing the power to the audience. “It not only gave viewers a tone that was palatable to them, but it gave them control of its narrative,” Shahar says. “It also became the antidote to those early versions that lacked authenticity. With Rising Star, the genre had evolved to deliver entertainment that mirrored real-world empathy and the desire to share in something uplifting, not brutal.”

Now, under a co-development partnership, Keshet International and Argentina’s Telefe have unleashed their next challenger, Heart Beats, onto the market. Shahar describes the format as “a hybrid of dating, talent and reality. The romance that blossoms on competitive reality shows is nothing new. Heart Beats formalizes this by-product and makes it a core part of the show. The question is: if a couple performs brilliantly together, will they have the same chemistry offstage?”

As with all today’s big entertainment shows, interactivity is bred into the bones of Heart Beats, with viewers invited to both communicate with contestants and reshuffle the onscreen partnerships. Shahar makes the point that, with singing formats, the power to affect the outcome not only draws viewers into the show but also helps build a fan base for a new artist. That said, she also believes it’s time to rethink the way viewers are asked to vote: “Can we still ask them to text in when they will soon be paying for their coffee by retina scan?”

Another way in which technology has impacted singing formats is its disruption of the music industry, which has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years. Rather than consume music via transferrable digital files or downloads, we now stream it—and in ever-growing numbers. That helps to explain the buzz around The Stream, Nordic World’s latest contribution to the singing oeuvre and arguably the most authentic reflection yet of the music industry’s new reality. The format, developed by Little Hill and Monster Format for TV2 Norway, launched internationally at MIPCOM last October and was instantly bagged by NBC, where a U.S. version is currently in development.

The show’s premise is that hopefuls upload clips of themselves performing to The Stream’s website. The public comments on, shares and streams the videos, with the 100 most-streamed contestants then asked to perform a showcase in front of top music industry scouts. The best go on to compete in a weekly live show, with the winner being the artist who generates the most streams, as well as the most votes during the show.

The Stream’s strength, according to Nordic World CEO Espen Huseby, is its natural fusion of social media, streaming technology and television. “Everybody’s been searching for a show that has digital and interactivity baked into its essence,” he says. “The Stream is the first singing format that’s cracked that code and is capable of attracting and holding both online and linear TV audiences. And it does it effortlessly and organically, unlike many other digital format propositions, which are old-fashioned TV shows with a bit of interactive window dressing.”

Huseby notes that some of the biggest music stars on the planet were discovered online, talent-scouted by the public rather than label execs. What’s more, that public tends to consist of the elusive, cord-cutting youth demographic. “Many young people don’t watch traditional television and never have,” he observes. “So I don’t understand why everybody’s trying to catch young viewers with traditional TV shows. It’s never going to happen. If you want young people to watch your show, you have to go after them where they are—and that’s on YouTube and the SVOD streaming services. Once you’ve caught them digitally, you have a chance to persuade them over to traditional TV, but only if your show resonates with their reality.”

He also points to the YouTube generation’s short attention span. “Even a two-minute video can be too long if it doesn’t instantly grab them. With singing formats, that means thinking smaller, faster and catchier in the earlier stages of the game play. Again, once you’ve hooked them in, you have a chance of keeping them for a longer period. It’s a bit like catching fish.”

Some of the world’s largest record companies backed TV2’s debut version of The Stream, with A&R execs from Universal, Sony and Warner Music appearing on its panel of judges. This touches on another key factor: the importance of music-industry partners when launching a singing format. Meijs says this has always been a central consideration for Talpa. “The credibility of our shows extends past the shows themselves. A singing competition can only be truly successful if the talent subsequently embarks on the road to success they’ve always dreamed of.” Without professional help, their chances of forging a legitimate music career are slim.

Umay Ayaz, the head of acquisitions at Turkish format power­house Global Agency, makes another point: along with opening the right professional doors, a strong music-business partner can also guide talent through complex copyright, royalty and licensing issues.

Global Agency’s most successful singing contest to date is Keep Your Light Shining, an elimination concept in which contestants have less than 30 seconds to impress the studio audience and celebrity judges with their vocal prowess. Since it launched at MIPCOM 2013, the format has been licensed and optioned in several territories, including Australia, China and Germany, has been piloted on CBS and is currently on air on FOX Turkey in a prime-time slot.

Global Agency is hoping that its follow-up singing format, The Legend, will do even better. “We really trust in this show,” Ayaz says. “In most TV talent formats, the audience or judges decide the fate of performers. But The Legend turns that on its head by giving contestants control of their own destinies. The show takes the best of the best and challenges them to push their own limits. We’re not just looking for a great singer, but to create a genuine singing legend.”

This reflects Ayaz’s contention that today’s singing formats are no longer simple contests of vocal supremacy, but “strategy games” in which a great set of pipes is only the start. “In order to make a long-running show, both the production team and the contestants have to work hard to keep surprising the audience,” she says. Spectacular costumes, decor and performance skills are obvious devices, but backstage politics and strategy—the art of choosing the right mentor, correctly predicting the next round, exploiting disharmony among the judges—are also effective ways to ramp up the dramatic tension.

Ayaz also believes that singing formats stand or fall on the caliber of their judges and host, who should be selected not only on talent and credentials but also their suitability to broadcaster, budget, time slot and target audience.

“The people sitting there judging the contestants should have real qualifications,” she adds. “They need to be experienced and mature enough to criticize performances with authority. Otherwise, viewers will soon lose respect for their decisions—and, by extension, the show.”

This view chimes with Jinwoo Hwang, the head of global content development at Korean powerhouse CJ E&M. “People will not get excited if an immature boy-band member appears and judges contestants. It’s always important for the judge to possess credibility.” Hwang references CJ E&M’s format Superstar K, which went on to be a big hit for Hubei Satellite TV as Superstar China. The K-pop singer and rapper Psy was invited to judge the fourth season of Korea’s biggest audition-based talent show, which has aired on music channel Mnet since 2009. The decision wasn’t based on Psy’s fame alone, Hwang says, “Even before his mega-hit ‘Gangnam Style,’ our producers had admired Psy’s integrity on stage because he had experienced the bottom and eventually rose to fame. We believed he could share more interesting ideas and passion with the contestants—and he met our expectations.”

Hwang agrees with Keshet’s Shahar that “journey” singing formats have lost some of their pulling power. People are no longer amazed by unknown singers turning in electrifying performances, or intrigued by their progress along the bumpy road to superstardom. Instead, he believes the needle of public opinion has swung towards “fun and fast-paced” light entertainment.

“But light entertainment doesn’t mean a lack of sincerity or authenticity in the music,” Hwang stresses, pointing to celeb-driven Lip Sync Battle, arguably the closest thing in 2016 to a breakout singing format. Starting life as a segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, it was picked up by cable channel Spike and has subsequently been sold into some 17 territories. “Lip Sync Battle is fun, but the performances are still great,” Hwang adds. “Idea and effort and passion on stage are big elements, and audiences support this.”

CJ E&M has several singing formats in its portfolio, including the ambitious reality/singing hybrid Produce 101, in which the nation produces its own girl band; singing/survival show Boys24; and its best-selling music-based format to date, I Can See Your Voice, local versions of which have performed well in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and China. Distributed outside of Asia by Endemol Shine Group, I Can See Your Voice has music-industry experts attempt to identify genuine singing talent by decoding visual rather than vocal clues.

The success of I Can See Your Voice supports Hwang’s argument that light entertainment is the way ahead. “It contains singing elements, but it’s easier, faster and funnier than traditional singing formats. That is why we never call it a singing competition, but describe it instead as ‘singing entertainment’ or ‘music entertainment.’”

At MIPTV, CJ E&M is launching a new “singing entertainment” format, Golden Tambourine, which premiered on Mnet in December. Hwang hopes the energetic, karaoke-inspired show will “create a new gusto” in music-driven content with its focus on fun and friendly competition.

For the last two decades, the biggest and best singing formats have been among the most influential shows on the planet. They have driven television schedules, created conversations, and made headlines, stars and an awful lot of money. As Hwang puts it, “Singing formats have exerted a major influence over the entire TV content ecosystem, and they are still one of the most popular genres on our screen of choice. So singing formats still live—the exciting thing is where we’ll take them next.”

By Joanna Stephens - World Screen

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