For the past eight years, The Voice has been NBC’s most reliable prime-time entertainment program, not only serving as a top-rated show but also helping the network launch its biggest recent hits, including This Is Us.
But as the hit music competition series returns tonight, it will do so without one of its biggest draws: Adam Levine, who, alongside Blake Shelton, had served as one of the show’s four celebrity coaches for each of its previous 16 cycles. NBC said in May that the Maroon 5 singer had exited the show, with Gwen Stefani taking his place this cycle as a coach alongside Shelton, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend.
The network maintains it’s not worried about how The Voice will fare in Levine’s absence.
“He’s one of the original gangsters. He started the thing with us, and it is of course with some trepidation that we move into a world without him,” said NBC Entertainment co-chairman Paul Telegdy.
However, in the research NBC conducted this summer with Voice viewers, “we’re not getting an indication there are particularly strong sentiments about not watching the show because Adam’s not on it,” said Telegdy, adding that he’s “as relatively confident as you can be in such a rapidly changing ratings environment” that it will continue to perform.
The Voice isn’t the ratings powerhouse it once was, but its success is still vital to NBC as it tries to hold on to the 18-49 demo ratings crown for the fourth straight season. Last season, The Voice’s Monday night telecast ranked No. 23 among all broadcast series, with a 2.0 in Nielsen’s most current ratings (the Tuesday telecast was No. 30 with a 1.8).
And over the years, The Voice has been NBC’s biggest launching pad, as its viewers flocked to the debuts of The Blacklist, This Is Us, Blindspot and, most recently, last year’s Manifest.
‘A fun dynamic’ with Stefani
On any long-running series, “the story changes when the people change,” Telegdy said. “I think a sense of change is always quite useful for a show that’s had that many seasons in such a short space of time.”
And for NBC, the addition of Stefani—who has been in a relationship with Shelton for four years—is a good way to change the story, and should help compensate for the loss of Shelton’s good-natured sparring with Levine.
The new season is “very strong,” said Telegdy. “Having Gwen back has obviously made Blake extremely happy and playful and fun. So, in one way we swapped the bromance for the real romance, and, of course, they’re both pros that are also competing. It’s brought a fun dynamic.”
Buyers agree that Stefani is a smart replacement for Levine.
“I think Gwen adds a nice flavor to it. People love to watch the dynamic with her and Blake,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments at MullenLowe’s Mediahub.
She noted that, a week ago, NBC was “definitely playing off of the chemistry between Blake and Gwen” in a video it posted online featuring the four coaches, accompanied by host Carson Daly on guitar, performing Extreme’s “More Than Words.”
Also, “I was over Adam anyway, after he had that pathetic showing at the upfront,” Drinkwater added, referencing Levine’s sullen appearance alongside Shelton, Clarkson and Legend to close out NBCUniversal’s upfront event in May. (NBC announced his Voice exit the following week.) “As a buyer, if you knew he didn’t want to be there, you were happy to move on.”
But others worry that Levine’s absence could cause larger-than-usual audience erosion for the show.
“His relationship with Blake, the way that they could banter, was unique. People looked forward to that, and that’s not going to be there. He’s also an attractive guy that a lot of women like to watch and find him interesting. And he was a good coach. I do think that it will affect the show,” said Betty Pat McCoy, svp, managing director and director of investment at GSD&M.
Nick Hartofilis, evp of national investment, Zenith, said the audience’s response will come down to the chemistry of the new coach panels.
“A lot of people do tune in because they like the dynamic of the judges. If you tinker with it too much and it doesn’t work, it could potentially run the risk of a steeper acceleration, especially because the show has gone through so many cycles now,” he said.
Although the jury is still out on the long-term impact of Levine’s departure, it does raise the same question that Telegdy and his co-chairman George Cheeks’ predecessor Robert Greenblatt also struggled with: At what point should the network consider programming just one cycle of The Voice per season, instead of two, as it has done since 2011?
Telegdy acknowledged that the viewing habits of the show’s audience have changed since its debut—along with the rest of the country’s.
“There may be a time when scarcity is called for, because any number of reasons. The audience doesn’t want to see it twice a year would be the first thing that would be a signal to us,” he said. “But for now, we’re [doing] two a year.”