ABC has high hopes for the new singing competition "Rising Star" premiering on Sunday night. But the alphabet network's take on the genre is a risky one -- as it relies heavily on the success of an app.
"Rising Star," which is adopted from an Israeli show with the same format, brings at-home voting on TV shows into real time. Contestants start out by performing live behind a screen. Viewers use the "Rising Star" app for Apple and Android devices to vote as they sing, with results and pictures of the voters popping up on the TV. If more than 70% of people who are signed into the app vote "yes," the screen lifts and contestants advance to the next round.
ABC gave an educational primer to viewers during this week's episode of "The Bachelorette," with a live commercial from "Rising Star" host Josh Groban and judges Brad Paisley and Kesha. (The third judge, Ludacris, was delayed by a late flight.) They encouraged viewers to download the app and try it out right then by voting to get a sneak peak of another new ABC series, "Bachelor in Paradise." Viewers then sat and watched a bar rise slowly until the judges also casted their votes -- each judge's vote counts for 7%.
On June 9, when the live commercial aired, the "Rising Star" app jumped to the No. 9 spot among free apps in the iTunes store. As of Friday, it was No. 38. In the entertainment category, it ranks No. 2.
Aside from voting, the app will also direct users to digital music stores to purchase songs performed on the show. It can also serve up ads.
ABC declined to say how many times the app has been downloaded thus far or name initial sponsors of the show.
(If "Rising Star" does take off, it will be interesting to see how brands might jump on the social aspect of the show, by perhaps getting involved in voting themselves and landing their own icons and pictures on the show.)
This is the second big swing from a broadcaster banking on an app to make a TV show work. NBC tried the strategy last year with its live, 24-7 game show, "Million Second Quiz," which let viewers play at home for a chance to join the show.
The results were lackluster. The night of the premiere was plagued with glitches including an outright crash by the app, which prevented viewers from playing along at home. Those bugs were ultimately fixed, and during the 10-day run, NBC said 1.5 million people engaged in 28 million games, with more than 400,000 people earning enough points to qualify to play on TV.
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Still, if the hope was to drive players back to the live TV show, "Million Second Quiz" was a disappointment, with just 5.4 million people tuning in to the finale.
Like NBC -- which aggressively promoted the Ryan Seacrest-hosted game show ahead of its premiere -- ABC has been pulling all the stop for "Rising Star," airing frequent promos during the NBA Finals, "The Bachelor" and other programming.
"Rising Star" comes at a critical time for the network, which ended the season once again in fourth place among the all-important 18-to-49 demo. Its total audience also declined 3% from last year. So "Rising Star" is not only a bid for a millennial generation tied to its smartphones and tablets, but an attempt to use apps to attach more viewers to live TV viewing. If ABC pulls it off, "Rising Star" could help recreate a singing genre that's in desperate need of a makeover.
NBC was been able to reverse its longtime ratings woes partly on the strength of "The Voice," a result ABC would very much like to emulate, but even "The Voice" was down among 18-to-49-year olds this past season. Fox's stalwart "American Idol," of course, hit new ratings lows and will likely be reformatted next season. Fox also canceled Simon Cowell's "The X-Factor," its attempt to develop an eventual successor to "Idol," after just three seasons.
On ABC, its top series, "Dancing With the Stars," was reduced to just one night per week this season, and also slipped to ratings lows.
"Rising Star" is ABC's chance to break new ground -- that is, if viewers are willing to play along.