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Finding their voice

6/17/2014
Finding their voice Finding their voice

By Kenny Herzog
Special to MSN TV

Whether on "Star Search" or "The Gong Show," American audiences have always enjoyed watching unknown quantities prove their vocal and performance bravado in a hostile, overly scrutinized environment. So it's no surprise that, along with the ubiquity of reality TV, singing-competition series have become ratings anchors for big networks whose scripted programming no longer lures the big advertising bucks. At the very least, and as evidenced most unabashedly on "American Idol," it sure makes product placement more effortless.

Bing:More about 'The Voice' | 'The X Factor'

The problem is, we're more than a decade deep into the reign of "Idol," "The Voice," "The X Factor" and their kin, and the cracks are beginning to show. Qualitatively, each of the genre's major staples is desperate for ways to keep its formula fresh, and, collectively, they're spreading the talent pool so thin it's edging on malnourished. The jury's still out on whether Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban can fundamentally revitalize "American Idol" when it returns this January, but as we approach the winter climaxes of "The X Factor" and "The Voice," it's an opportunity to see how those two franchises are driving, as it were.

Photos:'The Voice' Season 3 | 'The X Factor' Season 2

In terms of sheer viewer engagement, "The X Factor" continues to struggle. As for "The Voice," its ratings have been steady, but can regular watchers even remember who won the previous two installments (Javier Colon and Jermaine Paul, for the record)? Or, for that matter, the names of Season 3's current ragtag group of finalists (some McDermott guy, a pixie teen from Long Island with two-tone hair and a bunch of other folks)?

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Not to worry -- we've given this matter a great deal of thought and evaluation. And after much careful deliberation, we've come up with five surefire ways to make "The Voice" and "The X Factor" more eventful, if not more consistently dominant in the weekly Nielsen ratings. And who knows? By implementing some of the below suggestions, they could become a positive influence on big-brother "Idol." So without further dramatic delay before announcing our selections, here are a handful of ways to make the world of prime-time vocal battles a better place.

Have Ryan Seacrest mentor Carson Daly

For all the tutelage "Voice" contestants receive during their long slog from hopeful to finalist, it's jittery host Carson Daly who could use some guidance. The former face of "TRL" and current "Last Call" maestro is no stranger to introducing artists or interviewing acts, but in this high-stakes, prime-time environment, he's more neurotic stage manager than charismatic emcee. Whether abruptly directing judges to hurry through their already truncated evaluations or aggressively urging tearful castoffs to offer spontaneous poignancy, Daly seems perpetually self-conscious of the producers nattering in his ear and totally out of touch with each episode's natural rhythm. Even Adam Levine seems weary of his stiffness, at times mocking Carson's contrived pregnant pauses with impatient body language or half-heartedly reciprocating attempts at host-panelist small talk (a la last Monday's awkward, belated Thanksgiving niceties). However, this needn't become another Steve Jones affair. All that the "Voice" brass have to do is reach across the aisle to Simon Fuller and Co. at "American Idol," poach Ryan Seacrest and have their longtime master of ceremonies school Daly in the art of being cool, calm, collected and in control of the room.

Don't make such a big production

Flood lights, smoke machines, Carnivale-esque scenes of costumed backup dancers, tasteless flourishes of needless instrumentation -- these are hallmarks of the performance segments in virtually all singing competitions. But nowhere is it more of a drawback than on "The Voice." Charming, flamboyant farm boy Cody Belew may have in fact knocked Queen's "Somebody to Love" out of the venue, but who among us could even separate his vocal from the backup gospel choir or admire his command of the stage despite all those giant screens flanking him with ridiculous, three-dimensional heart animations? Freddie Mercury could rise above any surrounding spectacle, but he was already the main attraction. In the rare instance that a singer, a la Melanie Martinez, leans toward more intimate presentation, the judges have a tendency to diminish it as being "cute" or "precious." In actuality, it's more of an authentic showcase, as opposed to some prematurely outsized benefit concert.

Two hours is one too many

While on the subject of tactful staging, we can all probably agree on one thing: Every one of these shows takes up entirely too much of our free time. Multiple episodes a week -- at least half at two hours per episode -- represent a soul-sucking, DVR-monopolizing bit of televised entrapment. But without that additional 60 minutes padded by cliché story exposition, superfluous recaps and glorified sponsor infomercials, how else would networks manage to eke out the considerable ad revenue to be had and priceless social-media branding? Or, in other words, the stuff we all skip through after tuning in fashionably late. Let's cut out the filler -- here's looking at you, collective contestant performances on Monday episodes of "The Voice" and "X Factor"/Samsung Galaxy video diaries -- or make new episodes available instantly On Demand, with fast-forwarding capability. Either is sufficient.

"The X Factor" should, like, get more, like, credible judges

Not all judges need to come prequalified with the pedigree of an L.A. Reid or have the snarling backbone of a Simon Cowell. And it's firmly understood that casting big-name celebs to fill those seats alongside Simon and L.A. is what attracts the audience that makes "The X Factor" possible, especially given the show's lackluster first U.S. bow. Problem is, once the early buzz from signing Britney Spears and Demi Lovato died down and deferred to the actual on-screen product, viewers quickly realized what they were settling in for: two hours' worth of Demi's adolescent ineloquence (good to see "like" is still teens' phantom descriptor of choice), not to mention Britney's childish cringe faces and generically adjective-driven feedback. Suffice it to say, tapping Khloe Kardashian to co-host didn't help elevate the charisma of "X Factor" personnel, unless you enjoyed her uncomfortable cross-examination of Lovato during a recent critique of girl group Fifth Harmony. Our advice? For every Britney or Demi, balance that selection with someone over 35 and/or a musical intellect that transcends superficial pop sense. Or not. At least Khloe has Mario Lopez to lean on.

Block the vote

Want to see judges provided with more analytical imperative? Eager to avoid witnessing another tearful Rachel Crow disaster? Interested in committing your time to a series whose victors justify their accolades with an artistically and commercially viable career rather than fade into obscurity (unless you count Jermaine Paul's smartphone-promo tie-in with "The Voice")? Then have we got an idea for those reality singing-competition producers: Leave America out of the voting processes, period. It may well wreak havoc on your Facebook and Twitter interaction, and would seriously bum out millions of teenage girls for a minute until they forget it was ever an option and continue loyally watching anyway. But just think about the dividends. Not only would judges be more accountable, but they might even be cast with credibility in mind, rather than the "When will their nipple accidentally fall out and cause a viral sensation?" rationale. It might even imbue both shows' somewhat arbitrary format tweaks (e.g. judges' steals on "The Voice") with more utile drama. Voting tabulation on these shows is often paralleled to democratic political elections. Only difference is, on TV, the popular vote actually counts, and it's created some highly unmemorable results.

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"The Voice" airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. "The X Factor" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.

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