In television, it is often the first big hit from a genre that not only becomes the benchmark of success for all the similar programs to emerge in its wake, but also sets the creative template for those shows. For the unscripted music competition genre, outside of the debut of The Voice in 2011, it has been practically impossible for a series to crawl out from under the shadow of Idol, and establish itself as a unique global property.
NBCUniversal is hoping its upcoming unscripted series and format, Songland, will do just that, thanks not only to the star power involved — the series is exec produced by Eurythmics co-founder and producer Dave Stewart, Maroon 5 frontman and The Voice alumni Adam Levine, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, The Voice showrunner Audrey Morrissey and director Ivan Dudynsky — but to its focus on songwriters, the behind-the-scenes creators that Morrissey refers to as “the unseen creative force that is powering everything.”
“While working on The Voice I was astonished by how much of my personal time was spent sitting with the judges considering songs,” recalls Morrissey, just prior to an unveiling of the format for the international press during MIPCOM in Cannes. “Not that you ever run out of songs, but you found yourself reaching for the same songs all the time. It was about this time that I’d met Dave [Stewart], and he told me that he really wanted to do a show about songwriters.
“But the immediate next consideration was that we couldn’t really do a documentary that would just follow people around while they’re writing,” she adds. “We had to create some sort of format and make it interesting, because the process is insanely interesting. So much of the work in the long time spent developing this was about how do we capture this very organic process within a framework that we can replicate time and again anywhere around the world.”
“I’ve been asked to be in a couple of songwriting shows that were pretty much about watching people writing songs and I would always say that wasn’t going to work,” offers Stewart, who, with Eurythmics partner Annie Lennox, wrote such massive hits as Sweet Dreams (are Made of This) and Here Comes the Rain Again, among many others. “For me, I might wake up bolt upright and scribble things down and then the next day get the chorus. Or it can be that the whole song comes out in one go.”
With Songland, fledgling songwriters perform their works in front of a judging panel comprised of three major music industry figures, who then dissect the song and lend their own perspectives on how it could be transformed into a hit. Once the songwriters are each paired with the producers on the panel, they will revamp the songs and then present them to a major recording artist, who will then select the winner and record his or her own version of the song.
“As a TV viewer, you’ll get to say, ‘Oh, that’s how it happens,’” says Stewart. “You can see how quickly a song can turn upside down in the process, but it’s only a little bit [of the process] – it’s not like watching someone knit or watching paint dry.”
Those judges include Tedder — who, besides fronting his own band has crafted huge hits as a writer and producer for Adele, Beyonce and Taylor Swift, among others — as well as singer/songwriters Ester Dean and Shane McAnally. American singer-songwriter Charlie Puth will be the featured artist in the first episode.
With the songwriters each being charismatic performers in their own right, the program features plenty of performance for those who flock to Idol and The Voice for that reason, but also delves into the inherent drama of the recording process — when the song that a writer has labored over for months, sometimes years, is given over to a producer and potentially radically transformed before its release.
“Any time I have to tell someone what this is, there isn’t a show that I can point to and call it a new iteration,” says Tedder. “It’s not a new iteration of The Voice, or Idol, or any of those shows. It has more in common with something on the Food Network. The difference is that with the Food Network, you can’t taste the food, but here, you can experience the song.”
Winning songs from each episode will be made available via all the major digital music retail platforms and streamers, according to the team. Tedder, who has also appeared on The Voice, maintains, “This will launch more artists than any other show combined, because the star of the show, even though we play a part in it, is the song.”
Songland will make its 11-episode debut in 2019, via NBC’s in-house unscripted production arm, Universal Television Alternative Studio.