The talent show that doesn't mock

BBC1's new pop star hopefuls show will focus on talent not tantrums, but will it attract viewers? By Adam Sherwin
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The Independent Online

It wasn't the biggest insult delivered to a female star at last month's Brit Awards but a froideur descended when James Corden asked Jessie J if she was looking forward to being a judge on BBC1's new talent show, The Voice. "We're coaches, not judges," the singer snapped back. "We're not here to judge anyone." It's understandable if the "coach" is a little sensitive over her starring role in a high-stakes series that will test the viewing public's tolerance for yet another tear-jerking talent search and define the reign of Danny Cohen, the BBC1 controller.

The corporation has invested £22 million in its new Saturday night format, which features the familiar mix of celebrity judges and plucky hopefuls but promises to offer a "kinder, gentler", public-service alternative to The X Factor's bombast and contrived bust-ups. A Dutch format created by John de Mol, the man behind Big Brother, the BBC snapped up The Voice after its debut season on the US NBC channel proved a hit, attracting 12 million viewers.

Where eccentric-looking X Factor contestants are routinely mocked, The Voice is sold as the show in which singing skills trump looks. The four celebrity "coaches" sit on revolving chairs and initially can only hear, not see, the singers competing for their approval. The successful singers are then split into teams and engage in sing-off "battles" until a winner is chosen by public vote.

The BBC, lacking a pop talent search since its ill-fated Fame Academy closed down in 2003, spotted the potential for a Strictly-style, all-ages hit, featuring likable contenders given constructive criticism by an all-star panel.

The corporation was criticised for agreeing a £22 million, two-year deal to secure a pure entertainment show, at a time when it is seeking 20 per cent budget cuts. Unlike Strictly Come Dancing, which returns millions of pounds to the BBC through international sales, the corporation does not control The Voice format.

The series is a partnership with Universal, the world's biggest music group, which will release the winners' music and use its power to "maximise the potential of the franchise and the finalists internationally".

The most important task was to find a team of celebrity "coaches" that could match the NBC team of Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5 and country performer Blake Shelton.

Jessie J, 23, last year's breakthrough pop/R&B star was first to sign up. Will. i. am, the Black Eyed Peas frontman, 36, brings industry credibility. The producers scored a coup by persuading Sir Tom Jones, 71, to give Vegas a miss and perform the role of singing legend-turned-mentor.

The final slot almost went to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. His participation would have ensured that all four judges were Universal recording artistes, a possible breach of BBC rules prohibiting giving "undue prominence" to a commercial organisation.

The role eventually went to the relatively unknown Danny O' Donoghue, 31, of Irish band The Script. If the judges don't gel then the show could be in trouble.

The Voice, presented by Holly Willoughby and Reggie Yates, aims to boost ratings by persuading the world's biggest stars to perform live. The huge clout that Universal Music brings means that the likes of Robbie Williams, Sir Paul McCartney and Madonna could be placed on the show.

Yet critics question just where the drama for British viewers will be located in a format that privileges positivity over tantrums. Jessie J promises that it won't all be "You go, girl" platitudes. "I'm not scared of being critical," she said.

'The Voice' starts on BBC1 later this month