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NBC’s ‘The Sing-Off': How to Do Reality Right

It was well-produced, feel-good TV — perfect for the holidays.

It’s been a tough year for NBC — but the folks at the Peacock went out on a high note with the recently concluded talent competition "The Sing-Off."

When it was first announced earlier this year, the whole concept seemed a bit dubious. A cappella singing groups in a show that sounded like a cheap ripoff of "American Idol" didn’t exactly scream must-see TV.

But give credit to NBC and executive producer Joel Gallen for getting this one (mostly) right.

"The Sing-Off" tapped into what’s shaping up as a key trend for the 2009-10 season: Feel-good programming works. Like "Modern Family" and "Glee," NBC’s holiday watching "The Sing-Off" put a big ol’ smile on my face from start to finish.

I think that’s because rather than try to create a fake sense of tension or competition around the contestants in the show, producers wisely decided to just put on a fun, family friendly talent showcase in which the final outcome took a back seat to the simple pleasures of watching (mostly) skilled performers do their thing.

Instead of weakly aping Simon Cowell, judges Ben Fold, Nicole Scherzinger and Shawn "Boyz II Men" Stockham were generally there to be supportive and offer up just a bit of gentle advice from time to time.

Over the long-term, their banalities would have become annoying. During this time of the year, however, they were preferable to sharp-tongued attacks designed to provoke artificial anger from the audience.

Likewise, although the whole affair was rushed– eight hours of competition were crammed into four nights over the course of a week — the quick pace was an improvement over the long, drawn-out affair that "American Idol" has become.

Quite frankly, as much as I love "Idol," I’m almost dreading the start of season nine, since it means weeks and weeks of auditions, fake controversies over judges’ decisions and a time commitment that can require devoting up to five hours of my life each week to one show.

By contrast, "The Sing-Off" served up a quick hit of entertainment and excitement during a time of the year when most of network TV is in repeat mode.

They came, they sang… we smiled.

I’m not trying to pretend that "The Sing-Off" is some genre-redefining hit. Its Nielsen numbers were modest, though relatively strong given the time of the year and NBC’s overall weakness.

And there were plenty of flaws in the show’s execution. I still have no idea how judging and voting worked, while host Nick Lachey was lifeless as he read off his TelePrompTer.

But since bashing the Peacock has become something of a sport for TV reporters this year, it’s only fair to point out when the network delivers a success. If NBC is smart, they’ll quickly announce a second season of "The Sing-Off" and work on ways to make it even more of a holiday event next year.