LOS ANGELES – Network TV was supposed to have unplugged the jukebox by now.
Just a few years ago, the oversaturation of talent shows suggested the genre would soon go the way of vaudeville. “The X Factor” expired after just three seasons, and Fox canceled “American Idol,” a show that had been so dominant for a decade that competitors nicknamed it the Death Star. Similar shows — “Duets,” “Rock Star,” “Sing Your Face Off” — lasted about as long as a Ramones song.
But the music just keeps playing. This month Fox debuted “The Four: Battle for Stardom,” in which seasoned veterans compete for seats on a sci-fi version of “The Dating Game” set. CBS is developing an entry of its own with Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun. And “Idol” will return in March, just two weeks after reigning champ “The Voice” begins its 14th season.
“As long as there’s music, this genre can continue to grow,” said veteran starmaker Sean “Diddy” Combs, who tries to prove he can be more brutal than Simon Cowell as the most high-profile judge on “The Four.”
The show tied “Beat Shazam” as the network’s most successful new unscripted show in three years. “In a day and age when everyone is looking for something fresh, we are the new kids on the block, and we are coming with rambunctious, captivating, entertaining energy,” Combs said.
“American Idol” returns from a two-year hiatus with the same host (Ryan Seacrest) but a different network (ABC instead of Fox).
“It’s like Procter & Gamble. Are you tired of soap? No one’s tired of soap,” said Lionel Richie, who will share airtime with Katy Perry and Luke Bryan on the show’s all-star panel. “Every once in a while you have to step back and refresh it, and it moves forward.”
Some shows in the genre have never needed a timeout, though. “America’s Got Talent” has been the top-ranked summer show for its entire 12-season run. “The Voice” has never averaged less than 10 million viewers since its premiere in 2011.
“People love watching and being part of the career,” said original “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson, who will join “The Voice” when it returns Feb. 26. “It’s that cool moment when I’m in Target and a woman comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been singing my entire life. I watched you and we’re so similar. I feel like I won that night.’ That’s a cool dream to be a part of.”
Part of the genre’s appeal is its family-friendly nature, giving fans a chance to root for underdogs with a higher goal than hooking up with “The Bachelor.”
“They’ll feel all those dopamine things they need to feel good,” Perry said. “The biggest gift we supply is inspiration. Ten years ago, I was where they are. I had three labels drop me. I was couch-surfing. I was eating Trader Joe’s frozen chicken nuggets every day of the week. And we have this ability to give them an incredible journey.”
Tone-deaf contestants, once ridiculed in preliminary rounds of TV talent shows, are no longer a staple. The shows have grown up, just like their audiences.
“After 15 years, it just doesn’t feel comfortable putting borderline unstable people up there and laughing at them,” said “Idol” executive producer Trish Kinane.
“One of the key things I feel about the show is that it shouldn’t feel manipulated,” she said. “In the past, people thought the judges saw everybody, thousands and thousands of people. Now they know there’s a line before that where the producers sit. We don’t want them to think producers picked them just for a laugh.”
Talent moves to front
Putting the emphasis on truly gifted performers gives these shows a stronger shot at producing stars, even though you still might not be able to name a single winner of “The Voice.”
For the record, the Season 12 champ was Chris Blue and he’s doing just fine. His first post-TV single, “Blue Blood Blues,” hit No. 3 on the R&B chart last month, and he’s now managed by Alicia Keys.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Blue said. “I knew if I wanted to be excellent, I had to be around excellent people, and ‘The Voice’ did that for me. It wasn’t about winning a show. It was about winning in life.”
Even a slight boost is welcome these days in a music industry that is struggling to make headway as fans turn to streaming services. Network TV sees reality shows as a way of reaching a broad audience, but artists may need them even more.
“Let’s face it: In all forms of entertainment, the way we get paid has taken a hit,” Bryan said. “When the music industry has a star born on TV — when it lands in their lap — it’s a win for the label and its ability to promote its artists. What a kick-start.
“I remember when I got my record deal, ‘American Idol’ was already going. I was like, ‘Gosh, it would have pretty awesome to have had the opportunity to try out and start on that platform.’ ”
It’s unlikely we’ll return to the days when “Idol” drew a Super Bowl-sized audience. But creating the next Kelly Clarkson — or even a Scotty McCreery — would certainly offer the genre more stability, especially with the competition between these shows heating up.
In some ways, this is a great time for network TV to develop stars.
“These days, it’s so hard to stand out,” Perry said. “You have to, like, light yourself on fire on Instagram while singing. And even then, you might not get enough hits [from online listeners] to make sure a song really sticks. So maybe it has come full circle. Maybe this launching pad will give an advantage to those that need the spotlight.”
Whether these shows exist or not, “there’s new talent that comes out every day and new talent that grows,” said celebrated producer DJ Khaled, a judge on “The Four.”
“Music is forever. You can’t stop that.”