A funny thing happened in the course of producing this summer’s breezily entertaining breakout hit, “The Voice.” A potential disaster, actually. After the conclusion of the auditions, during which a quartet of coaches chose singers for their teams, host Carson Daly went out onstage and said, “We have a problem.”
The coaches had not selected enough contestants. Only Cee Lo Green had the requisite eight; Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton were all short. What to do?
“I was on the floor. I was actually sitting in the audience,” says executive producer Mark Burnett. “I talked to the cameramen, talked to the coaches. They didn’t know how many [contestants] were left. They had never seen these performers, or seen audition tapes or heard them before.”
Then Aguilera, who serves as the Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and J.Lo of “The Voice,” came up with a brilliant idea. And the only one that would work.
“She said, ‘Why don’t we see some of them again?’ ” Burnett says.
But where were they? “Many had already left the studio,” Burnett admits. “We sent minivans to the hotel to bring them back.” The mastermind behind “Survivor” now wishes he had had the foresight to work that rescue mission into the show somehow. “It would have been a brilliant moment of television, to show that,” he says.
When the singers that the coaches wanted back took to the stage, they sang songs that were completely unrehearsed, songs that the band already knew.
“They were singing for their lives,” Burnett says.
Improvised moments such as these set “The Voice” apart from rivals such as “American Idol,” whose structures have been in place for years. “The Voice,” which is headed into its final two weeks, is also a more democratic talent show than “Idol,” as its contestants have a wider age range. Most satisfying, though, are the song choices, which lean heavily toward contemporary music. The contestants are not asked to sing material their parents and grandparents played on the victrola.
“It’s a breath of fresh air. We’re not trying to make a country singer sing Motown. Or an R&B singer do country,” Burnett says. “They’re allowed to be themselves. It’s coach-and-artist driven.”
His production team is headed by MTV veteran Audrey Morrissey who worked on “Unplugged,” the “VMAs” and “The Movie Awards,” among other specials.“They’re very experienced in contemporary music,” Burnett says. As a result, “Slightly older people are discovering newer songs for the first time,” he says.
The success of “The Voice” also hinges on the chemistry of the judges, superstars in their respective musical worlds.
“In classroom terms, what you’ve got are three naughty boys and the hot teacher who tries to keep them in line,” Burnett says with sly assurance.
“Christina’s not just the hot teacher. She’s the naughty, hot teacher,” says Shelton. “The one who makes it into the news for doing naughty things.”
Shelton was a stranger to the TV world before he signed on and it took one night at the West Hollywood Soho House — and Burnett’s credit card — for the coaches to feel comfortable with each other.
“By the end of the night, we were all high-fiving,” Shelton says. “We talked about relationships and marriages and drank a lot of expensive Champagne.”
How expensive? “Thousands of dollars,” Burnett says. “I bet they went through five bottles of Dom Perignon. But it was money well-spent. The chemistry from that moment on was organic and they became friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw [musical] collaborations among them.”
Burnett was so confident that “The Voice” would be a hit that he even predicted its initial rating — an excellent 5.1 in the demo — and was right (the show has averaged 12.9 million total viewers for the season). “I knew the show was really good. And NBC-Universal had done enough promotion. It would have been hard to live in America and not know it was coming on. Making a good show is only part of it,” he says.
Like any proud producer, he has his favorites among the singers.
Rocker Beverly McClellan “knocked the Melissa Etheridge song ‘I’m the Only One’ out of the park,” he says. “She always delivers. Patrick Thomas always delivers. Dia Frampton on the piano was surprisingly different. She showed herself as a true artist.”
That “The Voice” has tapped into so much undiscovered talent does not surprise Shelton. “This business is based on opportunities and on being lucky,” he says. “People just don’t know how to go about pursuing that dream. I guarantee you this show is a nice way. I wish there’d been something like this when I started out.”
As “The Voice” heads toward its June 29 finale, where the winner will receive $100,000 and a contract with Universal Republic records, the competition heats up and the field narrows to just four contestants, one for each coach. Burnett says, “It’s totally impossible to predict who will win. People are stepping up every week. It’s all that growth.”
Even though Burnett thinks that “The Voice” has little in common with his signature show, “Survivor,” he’d like to mention one point of commonality.
“ ‘Survivor’ Season 2 began with the Super Bowl lead-in which led us to beat ‘Friends’ on Thursday night. Season 2 of ‘The Voice’ will also have a Super Bowl lead-in. That’s 70 to 100 million people. I hope ‘The Voice’ lasts as long as ‘Survivor.’ ”