Don't watch the viewing figures! BBC boss's plea as £20m Saturday showpiece prepares to launch

Danny Cohen betrays his nerves as ITV reschedules Britain’s Got Talent to drown out The Voice 

It is the long-awaited centrepiece of the BBC’s Saturday night springtime schedule.

A £20m talent show with popstar judges that would give the Corporation a “kindler, gentler” X Factor and a family friendly hit in the months before Strictly Come Dancing waltzes back onto our screens.

But with The Voice finally due to launch next weekend (March 24) after a year in preparation, the Controller of BBC1 has already warned that the show is a “high risk” venture and begged critics not to judge the programme on ratings.

Danny Cohen’s apparent nervousness about the fate of his flagship will not be helped by the news that ITV is has deployed a destroyer in the form of Britain’s Got Talent, the popular Simon Cowell vehicle that has poached Strictly judge Alesha Dixon for its forthcoming season.

Previous series of BGT have begun in April, but on Friday, ITV said it was bringing the new run forward, setting up a head-to-head with The Voice. Based on initial listings released by broadcasters, The Voice will be screened from 7.15 to 8.30pm and Britain's Got Talent at 7.45 to 9pm, meaning a potential 45 minute overlap.

Speaking ahead of ITV’s announcement, Mr Cohen said: “We won’t want to be going head-to-head with Britain’s Got Talent. We’re very focused on making our show is as good as it can be.”

He stressed: “We’re not in a battle with anyone. I’m not interested in raising tensions.” But Mr Cohen also sought to play down expectations about audience figures for a format that cost the BBC more than £20m to acquire on a two-year deal, at a time when a licence free freeze is forcing the Corporation to seek 20 per cent cuts.

“These are high risk shows,” he said. “I’d love it to be a mega-hit overnight but I’m very conscious that these shows build overtime. We know that we are in this for at least two years. We’re waiting for it to grow rather than explode overnight.”

The burden of making The Voice – already a hit in the USA – a UK success rests in great part on the BBC’s celebrity judges Sir Tom Jones, Jessie J, the Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, and Danny O’Donoghue of Irish band The Script.

The quartet – which has not come cheap, with will.i.am being paid an estimated £500,000 and Sir Tom getting £300,000 – are the “coaches” who select the finalists through the show’s central gimmick – a “blind audition”.

Sitting on revolving chairs facing away from the contestants, the judges can only hear, not see the singers. If they like what they hear, they press a button and the chair swings round to face the performer.

After the “blind audition” stage, The Voice follows the X Factor pattern of coaches mentoring their own teams of contestants, who perform singing “battles” until the public chooses a winner. Performance downloads will be sold after each show with the BBC’s proceeds going to charity.

But the BBC has already faced embarrassment, after producers admitted that a small number of the 50 finalists, chosen after a pre-audition stage which weeded out poor singers, had no chance of making it through the blind auditions because of a glitch in the show’s format.

The four judges each have to pick ten singers for their “team”. But some singers towards the end of the queue auditioned after the quota had already been filled. “I was told I was trigger happy, I’d already picked five on the first day,” Sir Tom admitted.

With Universal Music a partner in the show – the winner gets a contract with the recording giant and three of the four judges are signed to the label – rival record companies will be watching closely to ensure their acts are invited to perform on the later live shows, and that The Voice does not breach rules BBC prohibiting one commercial organisation gaining “undue prominence”. Adele, who is signed to XL, is believed to have accepted an invitation to perform.

For Sir Tom, the advantage of The Voice over Simon Cowell’s shows is that all the coaches can sing. “You’ve got to have that experience before you can critique it.”

However, while the most recent, eighth series of The X Factor attracted some criticism for securing ‘only’ 12 million viewers, the BBC would be happy with half that figure for The Voice’s opening night.

Talent shows often take two or three seasons to hit their stride – but The Voice won’t have anything like that long before people begin to make up their minds. “It’s a tough business and first night ratings will colour perceptions,” a source admitted.

Yet a relatively slow start, if it comes, does not automatically mean that The Voice will fail to take off. Strictly Come Dancing launched with just 4.6 million viewers in 2004 but went on to double its ratings by the first final. Eight years later, it is a part of the Saturday night furniture.

Saturday night hits and misses

FLOPS

So You Think You Can Dance

Arlene Phillips-judged BBC1 series scrapped after ratings fell below 3 million last Spring. A huge hit in the US but UK viewers said to be bored with excess of dancing shows.

Grease Is The Word

Simon Cowell attacked his own 2007 failed ITV1 search to find a Sandy and Danny for a new West End production of Grease calling it “far too similar to our other formats.”

Red or Black?

Ant & Dec hosted £15m no-skill “roulette” show from Cowell’s empire launched on a Saturday but its ITV1 nightly run produced disappointing ratings. A revamped return is under discussion.

HITS

Pop Idol

Pre-X Factor 2001 talent search divided nation between Gareth Gates and Will Young as final watched by 14 million viewers. Format conquered the US and now remade in more than 50 countries.

Strictly Come Dancing

BBC1 ballroom dancing revival recorded modest ratings on 2004 launch but built audiences to 10 million despite controversies over axeing Arlene Phillips and voting irregularities.

Opportunity Knocks

Hughie Green’s original talent show transferred from radio to TV, attracting 18 million viewers during its 70s peak. Les Dawson and Freddie Starr among stars-to-be who braved the audience “clap-o-meter”.

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