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<p>Photo courtesy of Channel Nine</p>

Photo courtesy of Channel Nine

The Voice’s Tweet Sound of Success

Chemistry, cliff-hangers and communing in tweets: how entertainment truisms keep getting tweaked to make gotta-talk-about-it TV.

A man walks into a café as usual, but this time he's jolted even before the caffeine fix — by his usually quiet community of regulars. They are huddling around the barista, talking. About The Voice. One after another, customers come in and slip into the chatter about the hottest reality TV phenom on the airwaves right now. This show has — to borrow a name from a less successful reality foray — the X factor. Everyone is talking about it.

The Voice pits four famous contestants against each other as judges and coaches: Delta Goodrem, Joel Madden, Seal and Keith Urban. These pop stars each must assemble a team of unknowns. In the first shows, judges had to declare their support on sound only, before sighting the singer, a foil that created delicious moments of surprise, when the judges found the voice they'd heard absolutely did not match the person they saw, or had imagined. You can't script those looks.

If the singer was impressive enough, two or more judges turned to see the performer they'd asked for — and then competed with the other judges to be chosen as coach to the unknowns. Judges forced to beg for a contestant! Yes, the formula everyone expects, flipped on its head. And, true to basic reality format, their every early decision would be crucial to their chances in later rounds.

There's so much emotion and drama packed into The Voice. After forming a team, each judge then had to cut theirs in half in "battle rounds", where singers competed in pairs for a spot in the live show teams. Viewers had to guess if their favourites would get knocked out, the judges had to make split-second decisions. It's unpredictable. It's fun. It's entertainment.

The live rounds — starting on Australian TV on May 14 — will bring more audience interaction, with public voting being introduced. Now, after so much investment from the judges, the popularity contest won't measure just the contestants.

It's that classic "water cooler" show. Need something to talk about while you wait for the meeting to start? What did you think about Delta's picks last night? Can you believe how enthusiastic Seal is? Why does Keith always say mind-numbingly dull things? Is Joel picking winners based on his libido? Cue debate about the relative hotness of Seal, and whether Goodrem has hair extensions.

There's a lot to talk about, before you even get to the talent. But plenty has already been said about The Voice. It's popular. In the last week of April 2012, six of the 10 most watched shows on Australian TV were reality shows and one was news. The top three were Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night's episodes of The Voice.

And The Voice is that rare, you might even say new, thing in reality TV: it's overwhelmingly nice.

David Knox, who writes the award-winning blog TV Tonight, told The Global Mail that, sure, reality television in general is popular, but it's The Voice's whole package that makes this show stand out from the pack.

"The Voice is a real game-changer. [It's successful because of] the talent on the show, and the fact the judges have a great chemistry," he says. But there's more.

On Twitter there are numerous Voice hashtags that allow people to track the show (#thevoiceau) and show support for a team (#teamdelta, #teamseal, #teamjoel, #teamkeith). The judges and contestants are on Twitter, and The Voice's Twitter account gives fans behind-the-scenes updates even when the show's not airing.

There is no doubt social media is helping to boost the popularity of reality offerings, Knox says, fuelling more debate with — and among — the audience.

"I think that the way that people relate to drama is different to the way they relate to reality [TV]. Social media is a powerful tool for reality TV," he says.

“I think that the way that people relate to drama is different to the way they relate to reality. Social media is a powerful tool for reality TV.”

With drama and comedy shows, if you miss an episode, you don't want to know what happens — you want to watch for yourself later.

But Knox says reality TV audiences aren't time-shifting — that is, watching episodes online, or recording them instead of watching live.

The real-time audience means the big ratings numbers go to reality shows — the Nine Network says the first battle round of The Voice peaked at 3.2 million viewers. The fourth season of reality TV's other huge Australian success story, MasterChef, debuted on May 6. Its 2012 ratings have not been so impressive; many say the franchise grew tired in Season Three — too many theatrics, and not enough simple, follow-along-at-home cooking.

MasterChef 's template came from Britain but was completely overhauled for the 2009 Australian version. Its popularity abroad is staggering. Series One of MasterChef in Australia took 20 (more in later episodes) home cooks and taught them the types of techniques and skills chefs used to keep to themselves. Suddenly everyone was poaching eggs in plastic wrap, cooking their pizza on terracotta tiles and "plating up" their dinner party fare. The season finale audience peaked at 4.11 million.

Unlike British MasterChef, which began in 1990 as a Sunday afternoon program with new contestants each week, Australia's template assembled a "cast" of cooks and pitted them against each other in the kitchen — with one eliminated each week.

Once upon a time, Australia exported drama — it was Neighbours, Blue Heelers and Home and Away. Australia's Masterchef format is syndicated to more than 30 countries. Our version also screens in many countries; our wannabe chefs have become household names in India and other places.

<p>Illustration by Ella Rubeli</p>

Illustration by Ella Rubeli

On Monday, May 7, 2012, MasterChef, The Voice and renovation reality show The Block had a combined audience of more than 4.5 million people. The Voice alone was watched by 2.32 million peopleThat night, just one drama made it into the top 10 most watched shows, the US soap-opera Revenge.

It's a reality-TV-driven 21st century, unlike our Friends-ly end of the 20th century, according to a list of popular shows compiled in 2006 for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In the 21st century, it's all about reality formats — Idol, Big Brother, The Block, Dancing with the Stars — replacing the dramas that topped the 20th century list (Blue Heelers, Perry Mason, Homicide, Number 96).

One show, Friends, spans both lists, coinciding with the rise of the internet. The American comedy received some of the biggest ratings numbers for a non-sporting event in television history. In Australia, Friends, starring six largely unknown actors, was such a big deal that Channel Nine stole it out from under the Seven Network when its initial contract expired.

People were hosting parties in their lounge rooms to watch it, and everyone was talking about it. In the pre-downloading 1990s, Friends was water-cooler television.

Vanity Fair's May 2012 edition recalls the runaway success of Friends with cast and crew. Friends actor Matt Le Blanc says it is the personal nature of television that gets people talking. Unlike a movie, TV is with you in your home, and it asks you to commit to a number of episodes, over a series of weeks, months or even years.

“With television, people are watching you in bed, at their kitchen table eating. You’re in their house. ”

"Movies have this thing where it's an event," he proffers. "You get dressed up, you go to dinner, and you go to the movies. You're outside of your element. But with television, people are watching you in bed, at their kitchen table eating. You're in their house."

That relationship used to be one-sided. Networks would make or buy a program, and then they would schedule it. Audiences would watch, and if we liked it, we'd talk about it with each other. But we couldn't control it. It wasn't up to audiences to decide whether Friends's Ross and Rachel would get together. We just had to remember to set the VCR, in case we missed it when they did.

The change — from variety shows such as Hey, Hey, It's Saturday, local and international drama and even movies (The Sound of Music is the first work of fiction on the 20th century list) to reality shows — represents a massive shift in Australian viewing habits.

It's reflected in the way networks choose to run their schedules. Most aren't scheduling big-name comedy or drama in prime slots. Some of the most celebrated offerings from overseas are shunted to late-night spots (take 30 Rock, which airs sporadically on one of Seven's channels, usually after 11pm) or screening here months after they've aired in their country of origin (Downton Abbey has had a whole season and a Christmas special since Seven screened the first season in 2011).

Because social media and the internet allow us to track and watch the latest overseas dramas before they've even aired in Australia, the broadcast audience for those shows is shrinking. Instead, people are illegally downloading those quality overseas shows online, or buying them in box sets from overseas retailers. Such challenges to network broadcasting just didn't exist until the internet came along.

Frances Bonner, from the University of Queensland's school of English, media studies and art history, says TV networks needed to find another way to connect, so they looked to reality television.

“Ratings are down on 10 years ago, and it’s not just because we’re watching less [as it goes to air], it’s because our viewing is more fragmented, because of multi-channels. ”

Networks now make The Voice, The Biggest Loser, X Factor, Australia's Got Talent, Idol, Big Brother, Dancing with the Stars and the rest because they know that finding out what happens — as a group, unencumbered by spoilers online — is key to the success (read: ratings) of the reality genre.

Why would you watch Sarah and Yianna battle for a spot on Joel Madden's live show team if you already know what's going to happen?

"With the shift in viewing platforms and viewing practices, drama is no longer principally consumed by a younger audience [watching on TV] generally, it just isn't," Bonner says.

She says her students are often planning weekend viewing sessions of dramas like HBO's The Wire or Game of Thrones.

"[Drama is] downloaded, it's DVDs, whatever, and there's a desire for control over the experience and the feeling, I suspect, that there's something daggy about broadcast — you just don't do it. You have a weekend and you spend the weekend watching say, The Wire.

Networks use reality TV to require real-time viewing, eliminating the time-shifting and downloading that cuts audience share.

"What's going to broadcast are the talent shows that have eliminations every week. Things that have a high timeliness … there is a benefit to watching because you [find out] the result," Bonner says.

"It's a major device by the broadcasters to combat the alternative modes of viewing. You lose out on the conversational stuff [if you wait] — whether that conversation is on social media, or physically at the water cooler, and that's a real loss."

Bonner says people enjoy shows like The Voice because they're fun, sure — but also because you can feel like you're part of it. And by interacting, you're engaging in a whole new way of watching TV. You're invested. And when you're invested, you talk about it.

That brings us back to the water cooler, or our man's coffee shop. The big nights for showcase television are Sunday and Monday. People are home, they're winding down, and they need some conversation starters for tomorrow. So if you're reading this on a show night, step away from the computer and tune in to find out how Team Seal goes tonight.

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