As she entered the 14th season of NBC’s The Voice, executive producer Audrey Morrissey’s mission remained the same as it’s always been: figuring out how to keep a long-running reality series as fresh and dynamic as it was at its inception.
With more than 20 years in music television, Morrissey can tell you that this is no easy feat. Fortunately, seven years in, The Voice is as popular as it’s ever been. “But you want to create excitement and interest and have people still looking forward to new things,” the EP explains. “That’s always paramount in our minds and we really think a lot about that, whether it’s physically, in terms of our set—we recently redesigned our iconic chairs—or little graphic touches.”
For the show’s latest season, after the usual period of contemplation, Morrissey strived to keep moving the ball forward on the acclaimed competition series with the introduction of the now-dreaded “block” button and an indispensable new judge in Kelly Clarkson.
Winning last year’s Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, with four total wins in the category and a remarkable 49 overall nominations, The Voice is in the running again this year for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program and Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program.
Can you take us into your career history, and how the path you followed led to The Voice?
I got my start out of school working for MTV, so my entire career has really been in music and television. Fortunately for me, it was all the big music shows, whether it was the VMAs or Unplugged. That was my start, and I continued after that working for Universal Music Group, doing some television projects. Then ultimately, I met Mark Burnett, and he and I did a lot of work together. Then this Voice format was purchased by NBC and they asked Mark and I to produce it.
How do you evaluate your success, as you continue to strive to keep the show evolving? Can you discuss the evolution that played out in Season 14?
We’re always trying to find little ways to add new elements to the show that are organic and additive to the format, not distracting or taking away. [This season], we decided to explore the idea of creating something that was a little bit of an offensive move. We always have looked to sports a little bit as a muse for the show—we have teams, we have coaches, we have steals.
So in this exploration, we decided maybe there is an offensive element, and that ended up turning into the “block,” whereby during the blind auditions, if you hear a voice that you want and you are pretty sure some of your fellow coaches might want them, and you also feel like the artists might likely go to another coach, you can block them and basically take them out of the running. It’s worked pretty well. It definitely added new conversation and new dynamics in terms of how the coaches relate to each other in this whole scenario of the blinds.
We always want to make sure that the show doesn’t feel dated, that it feels very now. That could be everything from style and design, to a format element that we think makes sense, to switching up the coaches, which has been great for everybody. It’s a wonderful thing for a coach to come and join the show and feel like, “Great, this works perfectly. I don’t have to give up my mainstay artistic career that’s still happening. I can come and do a few seasons of The Voice and go back to my career, and come back again for another season, or come back and mentor.” We’ve been very open arms about that, and I think that’s been a very good thing for the show.
Speaking of new coaches, Kelly Clarkson took a seat in one of those iconic chairs this season. What did she bring to the show, from your perspective?
What’s interesting about Kelly is that she was a winner of a music competition show—the first one in the U.S.—and launched her whole career. Obviously, Jennifer [Hudson] also came up through that path. To have both of them be on our panel as coaches, having been through that process, we’ve never had that before in a coach. Their insight and their POV on what our young artists are going through has been invaluable, and it’s been wild to watch.
I think Kelly also straddles country and pop in a very interesting way. She’s also personally friends with Blake—and practically family with him—so that was interesting too. If there was ever somebody that maybe could give him a run for his money in the country genre, she’s one of them. So all those attributes and conditions [made] for a really fun season and a lot of new dynamics.
Logistically, what are the biggest challenges in putting together an episode of The Voice?
I think one of the most challenging things is turning around so many songs. In the beginning, it’s sheer volume; all these people, all these songs, making sure everyone is well rehearsed and putting their best foot forward to get a chair turn. Then later on in the season, when we’re down to 12 or less, it’s about turning on a dime basically every week, turning out Grammy-level performances. The amount of effort from hundreds of people to do that, it’s like a well-run military operation. It’s crazy. The other thing about it, too, that can’t be lost, is while it’s a ton of logistics and managing, you can’t ever lose sight of the creativity. You want that creativity to be at top levels all the time. That’s really the trick, to allow enough space and time to be creative and come up with incredible ideas, yet make sure you can keep that train moving to execute on those ideas. There’s a bit of an art to that.
What was your takeaway from this past season?
I think it might be that there was a very special bond that developed between Kelly and her winner, Brynn [Cartelli], and it was very special to see. I think Kelly saw a lot of herself in Brynn, and to watch that relationship develop and grow was a special thing, something we hadn’t quite seen before.
At age 15, Brynn was the youngest winner in the history of The Voice. What did that benchmark mean for you and the show?
That was incredible. The season before, Brynn had been a no—so a girl that doesn’t get a chair turn next year comes back and wins it as the youngest person ever. What a story. It was great. That is what’s so special about the show: Those moments can happen and really pan out for somebody. That’s what excites me about the show season after season. I’ve been with the show since the start and it’s just incredibly meaningful to me, this show. I believe in it so much, and it’s a very real thing. It really changes people’s lives, and helps young, talented people grow.
Why do you think the series has continued to resonate so strongly over time, with both viewers and the Television Academy?
I think it comes down to a few things. One, I think it is a kind show. It’s a hopeful show, and I think that really resonates with people who maybe in their daily lives are having a difficult time. This is a great show that people can watch with their families and see a lot of young, talented people moving closer and closer to their dreams.
It’s really heartwarming, and it’s also fun. They’re watching the coaches and the artists have a lot of fun while they’re doing it, and they feel like they’ve been watching these coaches—certainly, Adam [Levine] and Blake [Shelton]—for 14 seasons. They like them, and they like to bring them into their homes and have a laugh, and watch all that comedy happen against the backdrop of great music.
That’s really what it comes down to: great music, some laughs, some feel good TV that’s in fact real. It’s not scripted, it’s really happening. I think it’s that, combined with the fact that it’s a wonderful show that families can enjoy together, in an age where often kids and parents have their faces in iPhones, or iPads, or laptops.
They can all sit together for an hour or two and watch The Voice, and that’s no small thing. As a mother myself to a young boy, I have a great time watching it with him. He loves it and we watch the show while we play along with our Voice app, and it’s great fun.
You mentioned the Voice app. What has the general strategy been in extending the series into other spaces through social media?
Certainly early on, we found ways to use Twitter and other social media platforms in an interesting way that kept pace with this show, whether it was the coaches live-tweeting with the show as it was happening, or in later seasons, we added an instant save that utilized an instant Twitter vote, and now through our app as well. Now, our app is very robust and you can play along with the show in every phase. It’s sort of one-stop shopping to interact with the show, and it’s great. It just adds that other layer of interactivity while you watch.
What can you tease about the upcoming 15th season the premieres in September?
We’re continuing the “block” that we started in Season 14. That is still very much alive and with us. We also continued a save in our knockout round. Last season was the first time that, if a coach had a knockout and they really couldn’t decide between the two, once they picked a winner, they could actually elect to save their own person, as opposed to having someone else steal them, and having them not able to potentially keep their artist. They loved that we’re going to keep that.
We’re also doing something new. We’re calling it The Comeback Stage, and for the first time, six artists who did not get chair turns will be able to be coached by what we’re calling a fifth coach, digitally. And it will be a digital series. Then they will be able to rejoin the show in the live episodes. So that’s something new. We’re very excited about that.