Shortly before his new NBC reality show, The Voice, debuted in April, producer Mark Burnett wanted his four superstar mentor-judges to bond. So he gave Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Maroon 5's Adam Levine and country hitmaker Blake Shelton his credit card and sent them to Los Angeles' Soho House for a blowout dinner. The next day, Levine called Burnett: "Big mistake. I can't wait for you to see this bill. We just killed your fucking credit card."
"But you know what?" Burnett tells Rolling Stone. "It was worth it."
In its April 26th debut, The Voice blasted to Number One with 11.8 million viewers. It's become a certified smash, consistently beating Glee in the ratings and getting picked up for a second season. The basic concept is simple: The celebrities sit in large red chairs, their backs turned to the contestants – such as early favorite Javier Colon, bearded bluesman Nakia and bald, tattooed Beverly McClellan – so they hear them without seeing them. (The rules become more complicated as the show goes on, with each judge picking a team of singers, fantasy-sports-style, then training them for head-to-head onstage battles.) "Ninety-seven percent of the time I probably would never have considered anything like this," says Levine. "But just because it was such a weird, cool idea, I was really interested right off the bat."
While the contestants are talented and charismatic, the most entertaining element of the show is watching the celebrity-panel members interact – and tease each other. "We're not judges, we're coaches," adds Levine. "And we're just as invested as any of the contestants."
Burnett, creator of smash reality shows such as Survivor and The Celebrity Apprentice, had been working with NBC on a similar idea for six months when a network executive alerted him to the popular Dutch show The Voice of Holland. Rather than copy it, Burnett contacted the producers and invited them to team up for an American launch.
For mentors, he sought current stars with "credibility" – and once Aguilera, Green, Levine and Shelton signed on, longtime Survivor casting director Michelle McNulty and her staff began working with artist managers, record labels and club bookers to find strong contestants. "The format is so clean and so engaging and focuses on very good talent," Burnett says. "There's nothing on the show where we bring in a very bad singer and have our coaches try to make comedy out of how bad they are."
Musically, the show has created standout moments, such as the opening number – in which the four judges belted Cee Lo's Gnarls Barkley smash "Crazy" together. (Burnett predicts the four will perform again by the time this season ends in late June.) Working with major label Universal Republic, The Voice has been able to nimbly capitalize on buzz, releasing songs performed on the show at the same time they air – an approach that helped push Colon's cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" to Number 17 on iTunes. "What I didn't want to do was be on the couch watching a transcendent moment occur and not have something be up for sale," says Tom Mackay, Universal Republic's executive vice president of A&R. "And I didn't want that moment or performance on the show to turn into people e-mailing a YouTube clip of it."
In a TV season when prime time is packed with music – from Glee to Dancing With the Stars, which recently hosted a performance by Stevie Nicks – The Voice stands out as the quirky, tattooed alternative to American Idol's polished pop machine. (Idol is still the most popular show on TV, though, drawing around 23 million viewers per episode.) Burnett insists his show isn't competing with Idol – "I'm a huge fan, I've watched it every season, as has my family," he says – but Levine, during the second episode, told a rejected contestant, "The people that we're not turning around our chairs for could win American Idol. We're looking for that extra thing – that unbelievable, mind-blowing, spectacular thing."
Which is why Cee Lo has made a point on the show of working with singers with unconventional looks and singing styles – and has been pleasantly surprised to learn his fellow judges have similar agendas. "Initially, I had planned on being a misfit among Adam, Christina and Blake," says the Atlanta-based singer. "But together, we're all a band of happy misfits out there."