Five Ways to Save The Sing-Off

The 5s

In this edition, we consider one of our favorite TV Shows, The Sing-Off, its struggle to secure viewership this season, and the dark cloud of Nielsen ratings that could lead to the series’s discontinuation before a fourth season. In short, we’re taking a look at Five Ways to Save The Sing-Off.

1) Focus on one, smaller roster of performers. Bigger is better, right? Wrong. Although I loved the prospect of no fewer than 16 a cappella groups getting network TV exposure this season, the swelled roster and split bracket system that came with it proved to be an all-around bust.

But isn’t a larger, more diverse talent pool more appealing? Only to a certain extent. Think about it—a collection of casual fans tuned in to watch the Sing-Off premiere and fell in love with Delilah, Afro-Blue, and Vocal Point to the extent that they decided they would stick around for episode two. And what did they find? Eight new groups. Hopefully Pentatonix et al. convinced the casual fans not to switch stations, but then fans of episode two groups had to wait another two weeks before they got to see their favorite groups again.

In short, the split-bracket system robbed the show of some much-needed early continuity, making it harder for casual fans to follow what was going on and really get behind a given group.
Furthermore, a large roster of competitors can work on a show like American Idol where a field of two dozen or so hopefuls is not unusual in the early stages. But on The Sing-Off, each group has five-to-twenty members, meaning that we’re meeting well over 100 musicians per season. No, we’re not going to remember every individual face anyway, but when the judges keep pushing the idea that individual stars need to arise for groups to stand out, it’s counter-intuitive for the show to funnel so many more faces onto our TV screens.

2) Revert to a shorter season. Trust me, I was as excited as anyone about an extended run for The Sing-Off this year, and if NBC extended future seasons to five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or fifty episodes, I would probably still watch each and every one. But hardcore contemporary a cappella fans in America do no number in the millions. For now, at least, a cappella remains a niche entertainment market, capable of capturing the attention of general audience in limited spurts. The extended season experiment season seems to have come up short whereas, I would argue if they had only moved up to six episodes in this run, and kept the show in the familiar confines of the holiday season, the audience may have remained above the 5 million viewers per episode watermark. We’ll never know for sure, but I think the best shot at the show thriving in the future would be scale it back closer to its original proportions.

3) Decide how eliminations will happen and stick to it. Will one or two groups go home in a given episode? Will all of the groups sing two songs before we send give someone the boot, or will we have an elimination round halfway through the show? Will the bottom two have a face-to-face sing-off to decide who leaves or not? Will the judges make the call, or the fans sitting at home? One of the biggest weaknesses of this show all three seasons is the inconsistency of how eliminations happen—a fact that became especially apparent last season with the surprise twist of four groups going to the finals; that grew glaring with the uneven bracketing at the start of season two; and that shone brightest of all with the one-episode run of sing-off style eliminations two weeks ago. No other reality show I can think of has been so scattershot or arbitrary about this process, and it really robs The Sing-Off of credibility and consistency. This may seem like nitpicking from someone who analyzes the show too closely, but I’ve heard complaints about this on some level from enough people that it’s worth thinking about seriously.

4) Pick theme weeks that allow groups to thrive, rather than confounding them. It’s great for talent development that The Sing-Off challenges excellent groups to test their boundaries and experiment outside their normal styles. But in the interest of delivering the fans the most entertaining show possible, wouldn’t it be all the more valuable to have groups perform songs they can actually excel at? Rather than shoe-horning a mostly non-hip hop, contemporary collection of talent into a hip-hop or ‘60s theme, why not keep the categories broad like “Famous Songs from Movies,” “Songs that Tell a Story” or “Love Songs”—themes broad enough so every group can be comfortable and find a piece they can thrive in. It’s still fair to kick off groups that can’t diversify, but at least give the fans a more consistently awe-inspiring show along the way. If I never have to hear another group talk about how “hip hop is not what we do” and deliver a performance that's not up to their awesome potential, I’d be perfectly OK with that.

Similarly, to revive one of the most spirited debates of this season, why did the show feature Sonos sans pedals? One of the group members wrote a really good post over at SIN3G in which he explained that at first they thought they could use their pedals, then found out they couldn't, then stuck with the show, with their current group members and structure, not out of any belief they would win the competition, but just to get more exposure for the group. Don't get me wrong--I love Sonos, and I think it's fantastic more people have heard of and are listening to them now than ever before, but it's this sort of forcing a square peg into a round hole that really comes back to bite the larger show in the end.

5) Make The Sing-Off a live show with viewer voting all the way through. This is my most radical suggestion, and I openly acknowledge that there are buttloads of logistical complications and costs that would come with this that my limited TV production experience won’t allow me to understand. Putting that aside, there’s something electric about watching a competition happen live, and something inherently less satisfying about analyzing and debating a competition that was almost entirely filmed three or four months ago.

In addition, few things fuel fervor in an audience like a sense of participation—like their decision to call or text in a vote will have an impact on the show, and like they are, in some small way, responsible for helping their favorites reach the next round of a competition. It’s great that America picks the final winner, but getting the audience invested over a period of weeks would make for all the richer of an experience.