'Rising Star': 'It's 'Hunger Games' Meets the Coliseum in Rome' (Cover Story)

Rising Star: Ludacris, Kesha, Josh Groban and Brad Paisley, 2014.
Austin Hargrave

Rising Star: Ludacris, Kesha, Josh Groban and Brad Paisley, 2014.

With ratings for reality-based performance shows on the decline, how can ABC's Rising Star hope to succeed? The answer may be in its eclectic and unpredictable band of on-air talent — Ludacris, Kesha, Josh Groban and Brad Paisley — and a new format.

In 2012, Avi Nir had a problem. A Ph.D. who had studied the psychological appeal of series TV, he was a decade into running one of the most successful TV broadcasting companies in Israel, Keshet International, which had scored in the global license market with shows like "Prisoners of War," the origin of Showtime's "Homeland." But one of the shows he had started with — "A Star Is Born," launched as the Israeli version of "American Idol" — was suffering in the ratings.

It wasn't interesting the audience the way it used to. Or Nir, for that matter. There was no drama to it, no innovation. Who wanted to look at the same old phone number on the screen? And text messaging for voting had been around for a decade. The show wasn't keeping up with what Nir calls the "DSM generation" (for "digital state of mind"). In the age of social media, there had to be a way to deliver instant gratification and make the connection between the viewer and performer more direct and transparent.

Two years later, Nir is sitting on not just the biggest show in Israel, but one of the hottest programs in the world right now: "Rising Star," which debuts June 22 on ABC.


The idea is a simple one, and not exactly new: The audience is in control. But by using a custom app and relying on real-time voting, "Rising Star" integrates the second screen more fully than any TV show yet has. The "Rising Star" gimmick — its version of "The Voice" chair turn — is the Wall. Performers begin behind it, and if they get 70 percent of the audience’s vote, the Wall rises. Voters will see their social media avatars flash on the Wall as they use the app. All viewers but those in the Pacific time zone vote during the live broadcast. The West Coast votes too, but acts as a save for singers who failed to reach 70 percent earlier in the show. 

Also in the voting pool are three "experts," as the judges are called on "Rising Star," who'll be giving the contestants feedback and advice: Kesha, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Brad Paisley, with Josh Groban serving as the show’s host. The experts each have 7 percent to reward to a performer.

"You're getting a really intimate connection with the TV audience right from the very first note," says Groban, 33, of "Rising Star"'s interactive approach.

Paisley, 41, for his part, zones right in on the show's intended appeal to the younger DSM generation: "It's "Hunger Games" meets the Coliseum in Rome."

In October at Mipcom — the international TV convention held in Cannes — "Rising Star" became the most in-demand global TV property. Keshet sold the format to more than 20 territories with ABC aggressively bidding to secure it for the United States. (Keshet partnered with Dick Clark Productions for the U.S. version; DCP is owned by Billboard parent Guggenheim Partners.) In September, it premieres in the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Part of what was driving the feeding frenzy was Nir's solution to the decline in ratings that his version of "Idol" had suffered. With a population of just over 8 million in Israel, the "Rising Star" app was downloaded 1.5 million times. And the ratings were remarkable: The finale achieved a 40.3 percent rating and 58 percent share.

ABC is hoping "Rising Star" will give it a music competition success — the network's previous hyped entry, "Duets," lasted one summer and attracted an unimpressive weekly average audience of 4.4 million viewers. "Duets" twisted the talent show formula by giving hopefuls the chance to be coached and sing alongside Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles and Robin Thicke. "Rising Star," though, isn't trying to reinvent the music competition show; it wants to perfect it. And the sector has been ailing: While "The Voice" was even, with just over 14 million tuning in weekly, "Idol" was down 21 percent in season 13 and off almost 70 percent from a year-five high of 35 million viewers.

"This show takes the three best parts — the performance, the expert commentary and the results — and puts them into every single act," says Nicolle Yaron, who jumped ship from NBC's "The Voice" in its sixth season to sign on as one of "Rising Star"'s executive producers.

One big advantage of "Rising Star"'s real-time voting is the disappearance of the results show, with its faux cliffhangers dragging for 60 minutes. "Rising Star" is streamlined, with 90-second intro packages for each performer, 90 seconds of performance, then the verdict.

Ken Warwick, "Rising Star"'s other executive producer, is intimately familiar with the problem of the results show, having shepherded 320 episodes of "Idol" as its EP from 2002 to this year. "Results shows were padding,” he says bluntly. "Every week you had to come up with some kind of show that would look like it was relevant to the actual result ... There is nowhere to take any of these shows now unless you involve the immediacy of interaction."

That interaction has multifaceted value. App users will receive tune-in prompts and can instantly download songs that just have been broadcast. (Capitol Records will release the show’s music and hand the winner a contract as part of the prize package. Signing advances, however, are not what they used to be, and a winner can expect to pocket in the tens of thousands, not the $200,000-plus paydays of "Idol"' yesteryears.) And the "Rising Star" app developer with Keshet, Screenz, has partnered with Google to launch Screenz Real Time, which will provide ABC real-time data about viewers that can used for targeted advertising to users’ phones or tablets.

But the app isn't without possible risks. On June 16, just six days before the show’s premiere, ABC teased "Rising Star" with a segment during "The Bachelorette," during which users were prompted to use the app to raise the Wall and reveal Groban. The app had been road-tested in Israel; Brazil, where it had some hiccups; and Portugal. ABC had run private trials in the United States, but this was its public debut. Upping the ante: It's Facebook's and Twitter's biggest live TV integration attempt to date. All went well. Still, the "Rising Star" team is steeled for the likely problems ahead. "We can guarantee you something will go wrong at some point," said Yaron after the "Bachelorette" segment. "It's live television, and we have a lot of contingencies."

As the show neared launch, Kesha, Ludacris and Paisley wanted to keep it fresh. They had watched the Israeli version, but didn't know a thing about their own 30 contestants, chosen from a pool of about 2,500 invited to audition in six cities. Kesha, 27, isn't joking about "winging it" — that’s the point. The cast did not do a walk-through until two days before the first episode aired.

Austin Hargrave
Kesha photographed by Austin Hargrave on May 18th at The MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.


Still, they all agreed on what had attracted them to "Rising Star": the technology. "As soon as I saw [the show] reel, I felt like the future has come early," says Ludacris, 36. "People at home being able to be on the app saying yes or no in real time — it made me interested. This will be revolutionary for television, for finding talent, period."

The show's summer launch is geared to help it make a splash. "'American Idol' launched in the summer, 'Dancing With the Stars' launched in summer and both managed to be players," says Mark Bracco, who left ABC in April to join DCP as executive vp programming and development. Bracco and Warwick believe summer is a time when families are more likely to watch TV as group, and their hope is "Rising Star" will connect parents and kids. 

"We all have our fingers crossed," says Paisley. "This is a group that wants to stay together. All of us have hopes that there will be a season two, three, four, whatever."

This summer is seeing a deluge of new programing as broadcast networks put big bets on scripted series costing as much as $4 million per episode. That's a distant cry from competition reality shows like "Big Brother" and "Wipe Out" that run closer to $1 million an episode.

"Rising Star" has more money wrapped up in star salaries than the average competition show. Add to that the cost of music rights, staging and musicians, and "Rising Star" winds up in the ballpark of $2 million per episode, according to an executive with experience in reality programming.

Indeed, the show poses enough of a threat that NBC scheduled an original episode of its most popular summer series, "America's Got Talent," and a new Howie Mandel-hosted daredevil stunt show up against "Rising Star"'s two-hour premiere on June 22. The move will likely affect ratings.

"I don’t really know about the pleasing-the-television-executives aspect of it," says Kesha, who notes she doesn't keep track of the ratings for her own MTV show, "My Crazy Beautiful Life." "The way I'm going to gauge whether the show is a success or not is if I find a new rising star, a new talented young person that I can help." 

Additional reporting by David Caspi and Shirley Halperin.

Austin Hargrave
Rising Star's Kesha, Ludacris, Brad Paisley and Josh Broban photographed by Austin Hargrave on May 18 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.