LONDON - The Voice UK will return for its second season this Saturday night, with the BBC hoping the singing competition will kick off its sophomore run with similar ratings momentum as the fourth season opener of the U.S. version showed on NBC earlier this week.
Monday's NBC return brought in stronger numbers than the third-season opener. In the U.K., the hit show had launched its first season late last March with 9.44 million viewers and became the BBC’s most successful new entertainment show in over a decade.
Industry watchers will closely monitor the ratings for the second-season opener as The Voice UK will around mid-April once again compete with long-running ITV hit show Britain's Got Talent, which has yet to announce the launch date of its seventh season. Like last year, this is expected to be one of the biggest primetime ratings showdowns in Britain, pitting The Voice coaches Jessie J, will.i.am, Tom Jones and Danny O’Donoghue against BGT judges Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and comedian David Walliams.
But The Voice UK has tweaked its format with changes similar to the ones seen in the U.S. after season one, meaning that industry observers will pay extra attention to how the competition plays out this year.
Time slots for shows are typically announced just a week or two ahead of time in Britain, meaning it will be interesting to see if the two talent competitions will go head-to-head or just partially overlap. ITV last year pushed back the start time of BGT to avoid too much direct competition.
Last year, The Voice UK made headlines by beating BGT in the ratings several weeks in a row. At its height in late April 2012, The Voice drew 10.7 million viewers, but it lost steam after its early rounds that were seen as having more novelty effect. The finales showed a big audience gap. BGT's average 11.4 million U.K. viewers for the season closer that crowned Ashleigh and her jumping and dancing dog Pudsey its winners compared to 5.6 million for The Voice.
The blind auditions, including the popular swivel chairs, will get more air time on the BBC this season. "The blind auditions proved popular with viewers around the world," said The Voice UK executive producer Moira Ross, who is head of entertainment at production firm Wall to Wall, part of Shed Media, in which Warner Bros. owns a majority stake. "So we had a longer audition process, more people taking part and coaches forming bigger teams of 12 instead of 10. So, there will be more for the viewer to enjoy."
Wall to Wall produces the BBC show with John de Mol’s reality TV powerhouse Talpa Media, which has launched The Voice in more than 50 countries, according to Maarten Meijs, managing director of Talpa International.
"I have never experienced such a fast [international rollout] before," he told THR. "And it has had great success in local markets. In the U.S., it is a game changer for NBC. It's tremendously big. In the U.K. it has great ratings. In France, it is number 1. In Holland, it is, too. And we have gone to second seasons - or more - in all of these. I have never seen a format travel into so many countries in such a short period of time."
Meijs said that Talpa monitors reactions to its global hit formats to allow for show tweaks. Plus, the BBC also compiles internal viewer research.
"We are constantly working on improving our shows," said Meijs. "We have been layering in format tweaks like the steals and knockouts - new aspects. Because the show is already in so many countries, we can try out new things, and some changes make it around the world, and others just stay in a certain territory."
Echoed Ross: "We learned a lot from last year."
In the U.K., the larger teams of 12 will this season go to the battle rounds, which drew the peak ratings in season one, to cut the number of performers to six. "Here, we added the one steal per coach in line with the U.S. format," Ross said. "This stage was popular, but the change throws singers another lifeline and increases interest and excitement. We think it will be very positive."
Meijs said The Voice is now using the steals in the U.S. and U.K. and "about another 10-12 countries," and they have proven a popular addition.
The U.K. show has also added knock-out rounds that will see coaches send one talent straight to the finals, with two others getting a chance to also represent their coach in the live-show finals.
"We saw clear audience reactions in terms of the decline of audience figures for the live shows," Ross said though. "So, we will do only three instead of six live shows at the end. They proved to be the least interesting and least original to viewers. This year, all coaches and all teams will play all these live shows, so audiences can judge performers against each other."
Overall, Ross said "we have moved on with the format and made exciting changes," with the show also getting some upgrades in terms of its look and its watchability. "But the biggest thing is we have really, really discovered talented singers - and in very diverse genres, including country and rock. It's not your standard talent show with a load of divas coming through. There is a lot of uniqueness and diversity."
She argues that The Voice UK feels like a fresh show in Britain, because coaches are natural instead of scripted.
The temptation to add artificial drama was never there, according to Ross. "There is never a point that anything will be televised for humor or to take advantage of people," she explained about The Voice. "It purely exists to celebrate human voice and its talents. That's what keeps the show fresh. It's not the same [music competition and reality TV] language and the same format points - you know, this is the point where the person hits a bum note and falls off the stage or the judges have an argument and one walks out crying. We don't manipulate any of those situations."
Meijs added that Talpa hopes to keep The Voice a hit format in the U.K. and beyond with continued tweaks. "We hope to maintain it for many, many years with innovations," he told THR.
Of course, Cowell and BGT are expected to once again be strong competition in Britain, and Cowell recently said that he was bullish on his show's outlook despite The Voice UK. "They will be very competitive," Cowell said about The Voice UK. "I don't take anything for granted. It will rest on how good the talent is" on both shows.
What is expected to remain unchanged is that both competition shows are among the biggest spring-season audience draws in the U.K., with The Voice averaging more than 9 million last year, and BGT averaging more than 10 million. The U.K. industry will closely follow how ratings trend this season.