5 Changes NBC Hopes Will Make Season 4 of 'The Sing-Off' Pitch-Perfect

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Ben Folds, Jewel, and Shawn Stockman in "The Sing-Off"
Ben Folds, Jewel, and Shawn Stockman in "The Sing-Off"

While "The Sing-Off" was never officially canceled by NBC, things looked grim for the a cappella singing competition, which hadn't aired since November 2011. Luckily for a-ca-ballers and a-ca-followers everywhere, the film "Pitch Perfect" became a box-office beast: Its "Cups" song was omnipresent, "Glee" continued to keep the beat on the small screen, and "Sing-Off" Season 3 winner Pentatonix became a bona fide YouTube phenomenon. We're guessing NBC couldn't ignore those numbers, so the series was saved from certain tone death.

"It's exciting to see what I think is a renaissance in a cappella music and to think the little engine that could, 'The Sing-Off,' has been part of spawning that renaissance," the show's host, Nick Lachey, said during a set visit held last August when the new installment was being filmed. "We all do this because we have real passion for music and a cappella, and it's pretty cool to see what people are interpreting a cappella to be. It's great to be back."

[Related: Get Your Music Fix With Our 'Voice' Recaps]

Judge Shawn Stockman (Boyz II Men) was also thrilled about the show's Dec. 9 comeback. "It is basically putting a spotlight on a culture that always existed but never had a soapbox to show off their gifts."

That soapbox, according to the returning talent as well as new judge Jewel and production team at the press conference, has been tinkered with and reworked in hopes of attracting a larger audience, producing a more exciting project, and scoring at least a few more seasons. Read on to find out the five strategies instituted to make this the new and improved "Sing-Off."

1. Hired a new boss.

Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "Shark Tank," "The Apprentice," "The Voice") and his reality TV Midas touch took over production duties. While the grand prize of $100,000 and a Sony recording contract remain the same, Burnett immediately gave the set an upgrade and made some tweaks to the format (more on that below). But he didn't want to fix things that weren't broken. He explained, "I love working with these guys, and when we sat down with the stars I told them, 'It's your show, not mine. Pretty much do what you want and have fun.' I've tried to be like we are on all our shows [and create] a uplifting, cool environment. We were here until 1 a.m. last night when we were supposed to be finished at 10, but it was such great fun that I honestly left with more energy than when I arrived. I was working but felt like I bought a ticket and was enjoying a show. People are working late but going home happy. That has to translate through the whole show."

Lachey confirmed his approach was working. "Mark is being humble. The energy he brings to the show and the atmosphere he's helped create are incredible."

The Filharmonic performs Bruno Mars's "Treasure":

2. Added new coach with judging experience and street cred.

Sara Bareilles, who had taken Nicole Scherzinger's scorekeeper seat for Season 3, exited, and Jewel replaced her on the panel that includes Stockman and Ben Folds. On top of her successful singing career, Jewel has appeared as an adviser, coach, host, and judge on a variety of talent competitions including "The Voice," "Platinum Hit," and "American Idol." In fact, she called her "Nashville Star" cohort Blake Shelton for advice on full-time coaching gigs. "I think he's a fantastic judge, and I said, 'What's your advice?' He said, 'Just get drunk and tell jokes,'" she said, laughing. "No, I didn't really have a plan coming in. This is all heart, so you have to let your heart be your guide. I'm not here to make anybody look stupid. I just try to treat people like I would want to be treated if I was up there. You have to build people up and be honest."

Lachey thinks Jewel is a "great addition to our show. She is 100 percent in her comfort zone, gorgeous, well spoken, and knowledgeable. She stepped right in, took the baton, and ran with it."

[Related: Pentatonix Debuts on Billboard's Social 50 Chart]

3. Spiced things up with a sudden-death showdown.

The biggest difference in the show's format was the addition of a literal sing-off to each round. At the end of each night, the two groups who underperformed the most will battle each other. One stays; one goes. Burnett said, "It reminds me of 'West Side Story.' I was so impressed because no one knows who's going to be at the end. They've got about 15 minutes' notice to get it together, [but] it looks like they rehearsed for a week. Unbelievable, their voices. If you were on Broadway and bought a ticket, you would have gotten your money's worth."

Stockman likes the new battle element. "It's an amazing level of entertainment, and I think people will really get into the fact that there's an organic reaction to and a high respect for each other. People feed off that energy."

While it does end in elimination, Jewel added that it becomes bigger than that. "What was neat about it to me is that they were doing it like a performance piece together. They weren't looking at it like us against them. It was, we both have to make this an amazing moment to watch."

Home Free sings "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line: 

4. Returned to the condensed format at the most wonderful time of the year.

Seasons 1 and 2 were made up of four and five episodes respectively, while year three clocked in at 11 episodes. Teams didn't even perform every week because of the extended season length, and it required an earlier September start date, which essentially buried the show in the tidal wave of fall premieres. NBC has returned to the succinct format and holiday season showtime. Burnett said, "This is a loving, uplifting show, and what a great time of year when the country is in that kind of loving mood and everyone is looking at goodwill to other people. "

Lachey seconded that emotion. "The holiday season feels like the right time for this show." Folds gave the third thumbs-up. "Life is positive, and a cappella is the oldest and coolest form of music. I'm moved every single time I see the show from the desk. We're writing the proverbial miracle. [In fact,] the first definition of a cappella is generally 'in the manner of God.' I think that's interesting. It's perfect for the holiday season."

Street Corner Renaissance sings a One Direction hit:

5. Took the quality-over-quantity approach to casting.

They have scaled back from a 16-team Season 3 to feature only 10 top sans-instruments teams. The lower head count allows them to get more TV time and in turn keeps fan love from being spread too thin. They are all thrilled with the variety of performers as well. There are Ivy League belters, high-note-hitting high schoolers, an ensemble of professional singers who banded together solely to compete and win the title, a group of mature doo-woppers (Jewel guessed that the oldest member was "like, 73"), and even a country a cappella collective. "It's a really great opportunity for groups like Vocal Rush, who are in high school, and Street Corner Renaissance [the more senior singers] to hang out backstage and learn from one another," Stockman said. Jewel added that the mutual love for making the music with their mouths unites amateurs and pros alike. "They're enjoying the community. They found their tribe," she said. "I feel like we found our tribe [too]. We get to help people learn how to do what we do and mentor them. It's important."

"The Sing-Off" premieres Monday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. on NBC.