Can 'The Voice' Carry NBC?

Network Leans on Singing Show to Hold Ratings, Lead in New Slate

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How key is the return of "The Voice" for NBC?

"The Voice" season-four cast

The singing competition's season-four premiere can't come soon enough for the network furiously trying to dig out of its ratings hole. One sour note could potentially prove disastrous for the broadcaster.

Thanks to "Sunday Night Football" and "The Voice," last fall the Peacock Network's ratings among 18-to-49-year-olds increased more than 16%, even as viewership in the demographic declined for its rivals. "The Voice" alone drew in 14 million viewers for its December finale -- topping the 13.1 million that the flagging "American Idol" took in last Wednesday night for Fox.

But with both shows off air, NBC has faltered. The network finished the February sweeps -- the period when Nielsen surveys the country's TV habits -- in fifth place behind Univision, making it the only one of the Big Four broadcasters to ever finish in that slot. "Every week has been new historic lows. I've never seen numbers like this in my life," said Billie Gold, VP-research and programming at Carat.

Cue "The Voice," whose March 25 premiere will be carrying a heavy load as a critical lead-in for NBC's refreshed and reshuffled programming slate. The network is moving "Smash," which has been a disappointment in its second season, despite its Steven Spielberg cred, to Saturday. Taking its place on Tuesday, following "The Voice," will be new reality-dating series "Ready for Love."

"'The Voice' is the only thing NBC has right now," said Ms. Gold, noting that having it on the schedule this spring is the best strategy for the network.

NBC declined to comment for the story. But without "The Voice" as a lead-in, NBC's freshman sitcoms "Go On" and "The New Normal" have taken a ratings hit. As part of its schedule shakeup, NBC will air the season finale of "The New Normal" on April 2, following -- you guessed it -- "The Voice." And it doesn't stop there. NBC will also air encore episodes of "The Voice" on Sundays, March 31 and April 7, as a lead-in to original episodes of "Celebrity Apprentice."

The issue now may be whether the network is overtaxing its "Voice." NBC made the decision last year to extend the show to two cycles a season, which threatens to increase its burnout rate. NBC is looking to avoid that and keep its "Voice" crisp by shaking up the judges -- replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green with Shakira and Usher. Blake Shelton and Adam Levine will remain as judges in the fourth cycle.

The network's other big hope is the midseason premiere of "Revolution," the sci-fi drama from "Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams, which follows "The Voice" on March 25 after a four-month break. While "Revolution" was a breakout freshman hit, drawing an audience of about 7 million per episode, there's no guarantee these viewers will come back.

"NBC is not in the position for these shows to falter," said Marc Morse, senior VP–national buying at RJ Palmer. "But looking on the positive side, if they do well, there's an opportunity to build other shows around them and encourage sampling of other programming."

This puts pressure on NBC to make an impression with new content as it moves into upfronts -- the time when TV networks look to secure advertising for fall programming. Still, media buyers are rooting for "The Voice" and "Revolution" to help stabilize the network. "NBC is being picked on," said Amy Sotiridy, director-national broadcast at Initiative. "Every network is giving make-goods [free commercials to cover shortfalls from ratings guarantees] right now, and ratings are down across the board."

Mr. Morse applauds NBC for taking chances on new programming. "Compared to a few years ago, when they weren't spending money in prime time, you have to give them credit," he said.

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