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Two’s Company: ‘Idol’ and ‘The Voice’ Can Survive, and Thrive, Together
March 13, 2016  | By Alex Strachan


Light the corners of my mind

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Or has time rewritten every line?

          — Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, The Way We Were

I owe @xtina everything for creating that moment with me, and believing in my voice when no one else did #humbled

          — Joe Maye (@joemaye_) March 9, 2016


The singing-competition shows are all about moments — and memories —  and American Idol and The Voice have had their share in the last couple of weeks, in what is turning out to be memorable seasons for both shows.

And then there’s TV’s big picture. Along with live sports, red-carpet award shows and Donald Trump presidential campaigns, the singing-competition shows have proven themselves to be  immune from time-shifting and binge-watching, the bane of — and potential death knell for — old-school broadcast network television

Fox’s decision to hit the eject button on American Idol after this season may yet go down as one of the most short-sighted decisions in the history of broadcast television, but the show’s considerable following isn’t worrying about that just yet.

With born performer Adam Lambert set to return to Idol this week for one final performance, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Idol is still capable of surprising and moving a mass audience on a grand scale. 

Idol alum Lambert, who’s sold 2.5 million albums since he stole the show with his stirring rendition of of Mad World during Idol’s 2009 season, is taking time out from his Original High concert tour to perform on Idol Thursday, in what’s being billed — thanks to Fox — as his final Idol appearance.

Fox is dumping Idol to clear the way for more Lucifers, Rosewoods and Minority Reports, in the hope that somewhere in there, buried among all that dross and mediocrity, lurks an Empire or Gotham.

It’s business as usual, in other words, even as more and more viewers opt to catch up with Empire and warmed-over X-Files resurrections on their DVRs and through online streaming.

There was a recent moment on Idol, though, that reminded us just how indelible a part of the culture Idol has become, and how it’s still capable of moments of genuine surprise and real emotion.

And then, just this past week, The Voice had its own moment that has since gone viral, on YouTube and in those online spaces the broadcast networks are desperate to tap into but haven’t yet found a way. 

First there was Kelly Clarkson (top, right), the original Idol winner, in late-term pregnancy and swinging wildly between emotions, in an appearance on this season’s Idol that was both deeply moving in-the-moment and unforgettable, looking back in repose.

Clarkson was ebullient as a guest judge the week of Feb. 21, free with her praise of this season’s undeniably strong field of contestants and playfully poking fun at Idol judges Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. Then she took the stage — live — to perform her autobiographical single Piece by Piece, in a performance so singularly soulful, and soul-bearing, she suddenly lost her composure and nearly broke down in mid-performance. It was a raw and revealing moment, the kind of moment that can make or break live television. Piece by Piece, about a six-year-old girl who’s heartbroken and then deeply angry when her father walks out on the family, is deeply personal to Clarkson, and whatever demons followed her during childhood and adolescence were laid bare for all to see. 

Keith Urban fought to keep his own composure, burying his head in his hands during Clarkson’s performance, tears streaming down his face even as he struggled to remain stoic and play the part of the objective judge, unmoved and unbowed by anything he might see. Jennifer Lopez became misty eyed and froze every muscle in her body, not wanting to show emotion; Harry Connick, Jr., perfectly still, appeared to go white as a sheet. 

It was an astonishing moment, and the reaction the following morning — on iTunes and the Billboard charts — was noticeable and dramatic.

One week later, almost to the day, Clarkson performed a short, stripped-down acoustic version on The Tonight Show, and then told Jimmy Fallon that the lyrics make it tough for her to perform live. 

“It's not even the sad parts of it,” she told Fallon, “because I'm not in that place anymore. I'm in a very forgiving place about it. Everybody's human. But I think I get really choked up because I just realize how lucky I am. A lot of girls that grow up with daddy issues, with not having that figure in their lives, take a very different road, and I just feel lucky that I'm not that girl."

For those contestants in this final season of Idol, the message could not have been more plain. Yes, on one level Idol is just another silly TV show, but there’s another side: Performing music live is an intensely personal experience and takes a lot out of you, if you’re going to touch and move your audience in a meaningful way.

Anyone who saw Idol that night could be forgiven for thinking that was a moment taken in isolation, that there would be no more surprises or emotional lightning bolts in the season’s two live TV singing competitions.

And then, just days ago, The Voice had a moment of its own, a moment of such unfettered joy and enthusiasm that mainstream TV did what it’s supposed to do: make the audience forget their worries and everything that’s wrong with the world, if only for an instant.

Baltimore hopeful Joe Maye, (top, left and right) who had tried out for The Voice in an earlier season, only to fall short, wowed judge-mentor Christina Aguilera during the final night of blind auditions with his lively rendition of I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. 

The Voice is arguably at its best during the blind auditions, but so far this was just one more highlight moment in a season of highlight moments. The season has accumulated a surprisingly strong field of singers, even by The Voice’s high standards (Emmy wins in 2013 and again last year, three-peat People’s Choice and Producers Guild Awards, five Teen Choice Awards, a Television Critics Association Award, etc., etc.).

But then Aguilera, strong-willed, self-involved and with a tendency to go off-script, told Maye that I Put a Spell on You is one of her favorite songs and she wanted to perform a duet with him. Maye agreed — with the live audience baying for blood he could hardly pass — and what happened next was enthralling and exhilarating to watch. Maye, already typed as a Voice loser in the past, stayed with Aguilera lyric-for-lyric, move-for-move, and even started to lead her. If a star can be said to be born on a silly reality-TV singing competition, it may have happened in that moment.

There are many weeks to go yet in The Voice’s season. and a lot can happen between now and the May 24 finale. One thing is already clear, though. This time, there are more than a few diamonds-in-the-rough. (The so-called “Battle Rounds” begin this week.)

For all broadcast television’s occasional success stories — Empire, The Good Wife, The Big Bang Theory — the mainstream commercial networks appear to be trapped in a 1950s time warp, relying on the 30-second commercial advertising spot as a business model, at that exact moment in time when much of the audience will go to almost any lengths not to watch commercials. What buzz there is for scripted TV has migrated to premium cable — HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX — and from there to streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and, soon to arrive, Apple.  

Of the network singing competitions, on the other hand, The Voice has come closest to going viral. In 2014, young Christina Grimmie (right) scored an audition on The Voice thanks to her videos on YouTube, where she posts as zeldaxlove64. Grimmie performed Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball during the blind auditions, earned a four-chair turn and opted to go with Adam Levine, in part because the Maroon 5 frontman promised he would not forget her once The Voice season was over. 

Grimmie — who’s just 22 — has stayed active on YouTube, where she has more than 3,100,000 followers. She no longer chooses to perform covers and is instead focusing on her own music. She’s now recording — and selling — her own songs through YouTube and Facebook, while scoring invitations to the iHeartRadio Music Festival and performing on the road.

What does all this prove? Two things. 

One: Hitting the “eject” button on American Idol is a pricelessly stupid and foolish decision that may well come back to haunt Fox, possibly all the way to broadcasting oblivion. Minority Report and Lucifer are not going to save broadcast television from Netflix and Amazon, no matter how much network executives wish it so. Idol, because it’s live and because it’s unscripted and unrehearsed, can at least hold the line.

And, two: 

If the past two weeks have shown us anything, it’s that The Voice and American Idol can co-exist, in equal measure and on equal footing, at the same time in the same TV universe during the same season, whether on rival channels or not.

All the decision-makers have to do is look at the numbers. Even chimpanzees can tell high ratings from low. And if chimps can do it, why can’t network executives?

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