BBC battles to win Saturday night viewers from ITV by investing �25m in talent show in which auditions are done 'blind'
It is billed as a unique take on the TV talent show, but BBC1's The Voice has proved controversial even before it has begun. From the creator of Big Brother, with a budget of �25m over two years, the singing contest has already become so important that the reputation of the BBC1 controller, Danny Cohen, is on the line.
But it faces the most difficult possible start, after ITV and Simon Cowell decided to greet its arrival by bringing forward the Easter juggernaut Britain's Got Talent by a month so the two could go head to head.
With a line-up of judges intended to appeal to all ages ? including the 23-year-old Jessie J; will.i.am, 36; and Sir Tom Jones, aged 71 ? The Voice differs from its rivals because the auditions are done "blind". Jones and his fellow panellists ? or "coaches", in the parlance of the show ? get to see what the singers look like only after they are chosen.
The BBC and ITV have blamed each other for the 24 March scheduling clash; it remains to be seen which show will suffer most as a result.
Cohen played down expectations at the programme's launch. "Of course I would love it to be a mega hit overnight but I am very conscious of the fact that these shows tend to build over time," he said.
"Whether it's Strictly [Come Dancing] or the X Factor, they build and build. We are in this for at least two years, and we are waiting for it to grow rather than explode straight away."
ITV has already got its criticism in early. Its chief executive, Adam Crozier, described The Voice as "derivative", complaining that Cohen was spending licence fee-payers' money on a show that a commercial broadcaster could have aired. (Cohen flew to Holland at an hour's notice in order to beat ITV to the rights.)
Cohen said he was keen to avoid a clash with Britain's Got Talent, but some sort of overlap was inevitable with a spring launch; the ITV show having launched in April every year since 2008.
The last series of Cowell's show was a shadow of previous years, with a lacklustre panel featuring Michael McIntyre and David Hasselhoff. But it was still one of the most popular shows of 2011 and will return with a rejuvenated judging line-up including David Walliams, former Strictly judge Alesha Dixon and Cowell (pictured right) himself.
The Radio Times editor, Ben Preston, said: "It's going to be one of the biggest television stories of the year because it's already being painted in very personal terms: Simon Cowell versus Danny Cohen.
"There's a lot at stake. Simon Cowell is back and itching for a fight ? snatching judges, leaning on schedulers ? but he's getting fidgety. Is he nervous?
"Now you've got a talented new BBC1 controller who's desperate to launch his own big entertainment show; he's gone out and found one, backed it, and is very ambitious for it."
Preston added: "It's always going to be a gamble for the BBC. You can win the viewers, but the PR battle is harder still ? If The Voice does brilliantly, then there'll be people who ask if the show's distinctive and accuse the BBC of sacrificing public service. And if it doesn't do well, they will say it's a waste of licence-payers' money. There's a lot riding on it."
BBC1 needs a new "shiny floor" entertainment show after So You Think You Can Dance ? another bought-in talent format that was big in the US ? was axed last year. Its run of Andrew Lloyd Webber-inspired West End talent hunts ran out of steam and the theatre impresario has taken his latest project, to fill the lead role of Jesus Christ Superstar, to ITV.
"Saturday night entertainment on the BBC is really important to viewers," said Cohen. "We've seen that with Strictly, Let's Dance [for Sport Relief] at the moment. They are always high-risk shows, you always want them to be big and ambitious. What you need them to do is offer something for all the family."
BBC Radio 1 chart show presenter Reggie Yates, who will host The Voice with Holly Willoughby, was keen to play up the musical credentials of the panel, which also includes the Script frontman Danny O'Donoghue. Pop Idol winner Will Young was due to be involved, but was reportedly turned down at the 11th hour.
"This isn't a joke, this is very serious. It is very real and authentic and you have got people who are credible," said Yates.
Contestants include Sean Conlon, a former singer with boyband Five, and 34-year-old Toni Warne from Great Yarmouth who has had alopecia since she was a child. With the judges unable to see her first performance, she said she was "looking forward to walking on the stage and being me for the first time ever".
But with the bar set high for the singers, the programme risks missing out on the publicity generated by less talented contestants such as Wagner on The X Factor and Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing.
The winner of The Voice will sign a deal with Universal Music, a rival to Simon Cowell's Syco Music. But while the show makes much play of its blind auditions, panellist Jessie J said image remained important.
"You can talk about music and passion and stuff but you have to know how to hold a microphone, you have to know how to accentuate certain parts of your body to look nice," said the London-born singer songwriter, whose hits include Do It Like A Dude. "But what the show is saying is that the voice is the first thing and everything else stems from that."
And she had a warning about the price of fame: "Celebrity is something that picks you, you don't choose that. You know what's crazy is that what I had for dinner makes the news. At the end of the day when you step into this industry you have to take on that.
"I didn't get signed [to Universal] to tell people what I had for dinner or what underwear I'm wearing. I tell them about the music."