Judges may swivel in and out of their chairs, but "The Voice" has kept a steady hold on viewers.
Original coaches Christina Aguilera and CeeLo Green return for the fifth edition of NBC's hit singing competition on Monday (8 p.m. ET/PT), taking back their spinning red chairs from Shakira and Usher, who filled those seats in the spring.
They'll reunite with Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, their fellow judges from the first three seasons. All four will perform together on Monday's premiere.
The reunion was "like starting right where we left off," Aguilera says via e-mail. "The old locker-room humor came back. Maybe Blake's head was a tad larger" -- he's coached the winning singer three times out of four -- "but, in all, they are the same boys I know and love."
"The Voice," hosted by Carson Daly, comes off a strong spring season, which averaged 14.4 million viewers and ended American Idol's nine-year run as the No. 1 reality series among the shows' target audience of young adults. (Idol still leads overall, but not by much.) Despite moving to a twice-a-year cycle that risked diluting interest, Voice ratings were down just 4% from spring 2012, a season fueled by a post-Super Bowl premiere.
Leapfrogging Idol among young adults was a "big shift," says executive producer Mark Burnett. "'The Voice' is now really a step forward. I believe it's young America's show. It's been great fun to have CeeLo and Christina back. Christina looks amazing. She looks like a professional athlete in her fitness," while Levine and Shelton are "like a comedy act."
Green, a mere spectator for Season 4, sees some reasons why The Voice is holding up better than its rivals.
"The blind auditions definitely separate it from the others," he says. "It does boil down to a matter of casting and chemistry. Either of those things can be compatible or combustible. You've seen them be combustible, like on the other two shows." The Voice, he insists, is "new and fresh, and we are all actually not artists in an afterglow. We are current."
Aguilera says "people are drawn to how positive and uplifting it is."
Burnett's not worried that ratings drops for Idol (down 20%) and X Factor, whose Season 3 premiere was down 3 million viewers last week, signal a decline for all singing contests.
"Different show. People follow shows, not genres," he says. "'The Voice' is a rock-solid franchise that people love."
What's new? Fans will see more of the popular "Steal," which allows one coach to swipe a contestant rejected by another. Social-media correspondent Christina Milian has left to compete on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." And Ed Sheeran, Miguel, Ryan Tedder and Cher will be featured as mentors.
Despite its success, "The Voice" has yet to produce a breakout star, as Idol did with Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and others. (In July, Levine said that was "not the goal" of the show, but merely "a fairy tale.") Burnett believes it can produce lasting stars, pointing to the promise of the two most recent winners, Danielle Bradbery and Cassadee Pope, who's had five songs on Billboard's Hot 100.
"I think it stands alone," he says. "It's got great singers and great songs and I think, long term, it's going to (make) a very powerful contribution to the music business."
Green, who commends Idol for making stars, says he would like to help develop a superstar from "The Voice," but that it is a complicated process.
"You have to have the right team, the right plan and the right procedure. If all of those things aren't in place, you may have a problem in maximizing opportunity," he says. However, The Voice "is probably the greatest starting point that any aspiring artist could have."
Next spring, Shakira and Usher will again join Levine and Shelton. They "are both amazing artists with so much to say and offer a team. There is only love and support," Aguilera says.
Burnett says he knew early on that coaches would have to leave at times because of their careers. He doesn't rule out adding other music stars to the panel in the future, "but we're certainly very happy with our six.
"Unlike other shows, we don't have unnecessary drama when they're changing chairs," Burnett says. "When you get a chair on 'The Voice,' that's your chair for life, and it's all schedule-dependent. It's a very happy group of people who are all part of a great big team."
There may be a little well-meaning discord, however.
"We've all agreed amongst us," Green says. "We don't care who wins, as long as Blake doesn't win again."
By Bill Keveney, USA Today