The Sing-Off in the UK – A Viable Prospect or a Pipe Dream?

By looking at the statistics of this website, I am able to see several things: how many hits we get every day; which links on this site are clicked on; which posts have been viewed the most; and most interestingly, which search terms directed users to this website. There have been some obvious ones since we began in August – “Voice Festival UK 2012” being the term most used to direct browsers to this particular site (closely followed by “UK University A Cappella Blog” – which should probably be top really, but that’s another issue) – but there have also been some strange ones along the way, such as “How to place a cappella singers on stage”, “Bruno Mars in UK” and, one of my favourites, “The Other Guys’ Not So Regal album”, either stemming from a disgruntled fan’s discontent at the St Andrews-based group’s new album, or from a confusion about the name, “Barely Regal”.

Either way, there have also been some very interesting and thought-provoking searches made, in order to get to this site. None so much as the latest one that popped up yesterday – “The Sing Off UK”. This got me thinking – how viable would a show such as The Sing-Off be in the UK, given the considerable gulf in quality and popularity between a cappella in the US and the UK?

Let’s firstly look at the stats. Reliable sources (i.e. that old Chestnut, Wikipedia) inform me that while Season 2 of the US version of the show consistently saw on average 8.5 million viewers, coming either 1st or 2nd in its timeslot every week, the third season was less successful, holding the attention of around 4.5 million viewers and falling to 4th on average in its timeslot, perhaps due to the longer season duration, with 11 episodes instead of 5 the previous year. Despite this decline, however, that’s still a lot of viewers, and indicates that there could be scope for a similar level of popularity in the UK.

Just look how other talent shows have fared – Simon Cowell’s empire, funded mainly by shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, has grown and grown in the past few years, while on the other channel, Strictly Come Dancing competes toe to toe every year with the former, and even beating it last year (which is probably fair enough, as the so-called ‘talent’ on the last series of The X Factor genuinely made me squirm every 5 seconds due to awful harmonies or off-pitch money notes). Such shows get 10 million viewers consistently every week, and regularly gain the most number of weekly viewers across the nation. And with newer shows set to be hits, such as BBC’s The Voice, based upon a thoroughly successful franchise that began in Holland a couple of years back, talent-based reality TV is (still) not going anywhere.

However, how many of you remember a little show called Last Choir Standing that premièred in 2008? Well, if you’re an Alleycat or a member of Cadenza you might have a recollection, but for the rest of you it probably passed by quietly without ever really affecting your life. Same here. Don’t get me wrong, Last Choir Standing is NOT The Sing-Off and differs in many ways, but essentially it was a very similar concept, which involved fifteen ‘choirs’ from around the UK battling out for a chance to perform at the Royal Variety Performance that year. The final, despite attracting 4.4 million viewers, was well behind The X Factor series of the time and was not renewed for a second season. While 4.4 million isn’t to be sniffed at, it didn’t quite catch the nation’s attention as much as other similar shows have done in the past.

This could be a simple marketing problem though – The Sing-Off is a catchy, competitive name, whereas Last Choir Standing, while retaining that competitive edge, mentions the word ‘choir’, which could well have led to a loss of hundreds, maybe millions of uninformed and uncultured viewers, who stereotype choirs as ‘boring’, ‘churchy’ and about as far from entertainment as possible. In fact, although it’s sad to think, such people make up the majority of modern day Britain. Alienating your average viewer before they’ve been given the chance to sample the show, which was actually quite far removed from what you might expect from a stereotypical ‘choir’ and closer to the type of talent we see on The Sing-Off than you might think, is not the best marketing strategy I have ever seen. So perhaps a show entitled The Sing-Off would have more success in the UK.

However, while talent shows are rife across the world at the moment, with everyone jumping at their chance to grasp their five minutes of fame, there is one important ingredient needed, and the clue is in the name – talent. And by this, I don’t mean that the quality of a cappella in the UK is lacking, despite the obvious deficiences in comparison to the US, but rather the quantity of a cappella in the UK. It’s all well and good for the US to air The Sing-Off, because every high school and college you can think of over there has a cappella groups coming out of their ears, and due to the popularity of the genre in the States, more and more graduates are forming their own groups post-university, as evidenced by only 6 of the 16 groups on last season’s show being based at a college or high school. However, such is not the case in Britain. While both the ICCA and VF-UK University Competion had a record number of participants this year, that record number is 150 in the US, while it’s only 26 over here. That’s a massive difference, especially when thinking about more than one series of a show – The Sing-Off. And yes, we do have non-university groups, like In The Smoke, The Swingle Singers and The Boxettes to name but three – but that number is nominal compared to what they have in America.

Another point is – do we really need another competition over here? It cannot be denied that a cappella is most popular in the UK at collegiate level, and so one would assume that the majority of groups applying for such a show would be collegiate groups, who have been competing against each other for the last three years in the Voice Festival (and in some cases in the ICCAs in 2007 and 2008). With one annual competition already established, is there enough room for another one, given the relatively small a cappella community in the UK?

However, there is one crucial element that ought to be taken seriously. A show like The Sing-Off would put a cappella firmly on the map in the UK. When Out of the Blue competed in Britain’s Got Talent, they were described as “completely different” to anything the judges had seen before and it was a travesty that they didn’t get through to the final, a statement echoed by irate Facebook fans, who created not one but two Facebook pages urging ITV to “Bring Back Out of the Blue!” The Other Guys also gained some modest publicity from their YouTube video ‘Royal Romance’, so clearly the public appreciate good a cappella and there is an audience for it – it’s just very few people know about it. Surely a show like The Sing-Off, even if it were only one for one season, and even if it were only mildly successful, would boost the reputation of not only certain a cappella groups in the UK, but also of a cappella itself and would most importantly encourage people to create groups of their own. The best case scenario would be a host of new a cappella groups in schools, universities and communities springing up and providing the willing public with a second marvellous season of The Sing-Off, not to mention providing the Voice Festival organisers with several brand new Regional Rounds to sort out.

As far as I know, there are no plans in the pipeline at the BBC (because it would more than likely be a BBC-produced show, rather than one for ITV unless Mr. Cowell got involved somehow) to create a British version of The Sing-Off, and perhaps it is a little early to think that such a show would be viable, given the limited number of groups around to apply for the show – let’s not forget that not all of them would be willing to participate. However, disregarding financial issues, something like The Sing-Off would only be a good thing for British A Cappella. It would build the reputation of the genre and groups within the genre, and essentially bring a cappella into the mainstream. I just doubt that the BBC are aware enough that a cappella exists to bring such a show to the table, and as such we may have to wait a little longer.

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