Fresh off its fourth Emmy Award win for outstanding reality competition program, “The Voice” returns to NBC Monday night with a new powerhouse coach firmly ensconced in one of its swiveling red chairs.
Jennifer Hudson — who first shot to fame as a contestant on “American Idol” in 2004 before going on to an acclaimed career that, among many other awards, garnered her an Oscar for 2006’s “Dreamgirls” — joins “Voice” OGs Adam Levine and Blake Shelton along with Miley Cyrus, who returns for a second go-round.
Hudson, or J-Hud as she calls herself and will call her team, is not technically new to “The Voice” franchise. She was a first-time coach on the U.K. version in its sixth season (or sixth series, as the Brits say) that ran from January through April of this year. And she apparently came in like gangbusters, becoming the first female coach of the British franchise to win it, with artist Mo Adeniran.
With that victory not far in the rearview mirror, J-Hud comes onboard well-equipped to deal with the practiced machinations of Shelton and Levine, who with a few exceptions like last year’s win by Chris Blue of Team Alicia (Keys), are the leaders in mentoring their artists to “Voice” victory.
For those keeping score, Shelton is the reigning champ with five wins, while Levine has three. In addition to Keys winning earlier this year, other seasons were won by Christina Aguilera, Usher and Pharrell Williams.
Full disclosure: I attended a preview screening of the first episode of Season 13 on the Universal lot Friday with the agreement not to reveal many specific details. After all, that is part of the joy of watching the blind auditions — the inherent drama that occurs when an artist has 90 seconds to prove their talent and turn the chairs of the coaches, who then use their best arguments to win them over.
But before that battle begins, the reactions from the coaches who turn around and see the singers for the first time are often priceless, although as a strategy, Levine and Shelton are practiced at not showing much emotion.
NBC’s alternative and reality chief Paul Telegdy, who is also riding high on the successes of “America’s Got Talent,” “Little Big Shots,” “World of Dance” and “American Ninja Warrior,” introduced the screening of his prize property in a theater on the lot. Telegdy is the exec who oversaw the initial risk of bringing over the Dutch format to the U.S., which premiered in April 2011. The rest is TV history.
We can report that Hudson instituted a new method of showing approval for the artists — something unique to African-American culture — and that one of them is a person who is both a pastor and a drag queen, while another is a former NFL champion. Several contestants, inevitably, did not get a chair turn and were sent home.
A total of 48 contestants start the season, out of about 90-100 who made it through the pre-audition process to be considered.
After the screening, executive producer Audrey Morrissey and Blue took some questions from the assembled reporters.
“I was a viewer before I was a contestant. I got to yell at the screen like everyone else,” said Blue, who also mentioned he is now being managed by Keys’ team and recently performed three sold-out concerts. Blue was in the challenging position last season of coming to the blind auditions when there was only one spot open. “You know the teams are filling and the chances are slim.”
Morrissey said she was thrilled to have Hudson as a coach, especially since she is the first one to have had experience as a contestant on a music competition show. (Kelly Clarkson, another “Idol” vet, has already been announced as a coach for Season 14.)
“Jennifer has that extra level of experience. While she is a rookie, she gets it — and is obviously a dynamic performer with worldly, distinct experience,” Morrissey said.
“She’s new and she’s fierce and that will pay dividends in her coaching. She has an incredible shot,” Blue said.
Morrissey, one of seven EPs including John de Mol and Mark Burnett, spent much time discussing the importance of song choices for the artists and the challenges in getting music clearance rights for songs. She said her staff spends the bulk of their time working on that — and that artists initially choose their blind audition song from a list of cleared tunes.
“Certain artists and songwriters will never clear a song for us, especially during the blind auditions, but sometimes after they see the talent of the artist, they will clear,” she said, noting that the show has not yet cleared any tunes by Led Zeppelin or Nirvana. “It’s also hard to find songs with strong melodies that soar. It’s a needle to thread.”
Morrissey and Blue were asked whether an artist who has made YouTube performance videos that end up going viral have a leg up over other contestants. ”It’s not the same being in front of four coaches [and a national audience] as sitting in your room singing a song and being able to stop and start,” Blue said.
Let the competition begin.
(“The Voice” Season 13 premieres on NBC Monday night September 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m Central.)