NBC's singing competition The Voice dominated the ratings game this spring and last fall. Now, the Spanish kids' version has become the top-rated show for NBC's sister network, Telemundo. The show, taped before an audience in Miami, features Latino children from the U.S. competing for a scholarship and a recording contract.
Some of the contestants still have baby fat or braces on their teeth. And some, like Cuban-American Paola Guanche, have precocious voices that you wouldn't usually hear in an 11-year-old. On La Voz Kids, pint-size contestants sing everything from Puerto Rican salsa to norteño ballads to American R&B in both English and Spanish. It's the U.S.'s only adaptation of a franchise that's done well in 55 countries, from the Netherlands to Afghanistan.
No one seems more surprised by the show's success than Daniel Cubillo, vice president of Telemundo's nonscripted shows. "In the very beginning I thought that it could be a mistake," he says. "But I have to recognize now that I was wrong — completely wrong."
Cubillo should know: He produced Spanish versions of The Apprentice, Big Brother, The X Factor and Temptation Island, none of which have the rights to air in the U.S. Still, he admits he had doubts about Telemundo creating a children's show.
"I was afraid about the kids' version because it's so different, it's so pure," Cubillo says. "Kids are providing us with some elements that we couldn't get in the adult version, for sure."
That includes endearing scenes in which cute, small children burst into tears when they're eliminated and get hugs and kisses from their tearful coaches onstage.
Host Daisy Fuentes says the children have big dreams. "They're not joking around," she says. "They want the success. They want the fame and they want the recognition. And most of them will tell you it's to help their family."
The field of contestants gets whittled down every week and the kids are coached by three celebrity judges, including Mexican pop diva Paulina Rubio, who began as a child performer. "I started at 7," Rubio says. "I got a recording deal, so no [one more] than me can understand them and their fears and their family's doubts. It is a lot of pressure."
Rubio notes that the show works with a team of psychologists to help the children. "The whole project is taking care [of] these little souls," she says.
After losing a battle round on a recent show, 7-year-old Christopher Vega thanked his coach, Roberto Tapia. He removed the rosary beads around his neck and gave them to Tapia as a gift, then asked his coach for a blessing and a little good luck kick in the behind — a Latin American showbiz tradition. (Click here to see the adorable thank you, which starts at 6:25.)
For years throughout Latin America, there have been kids' singing competitions on TV. And in the U.S. last year, Univision aired a children's talent show called Pequeños Gigantes. But blogger Laura Martinez notes that that show wasn't produced in the U.S.
"I think what La Voz Kids is doing that is really different is that you have kids that are actually born and raised in the U.S.," she says, "versus just watching a show imported from Mexico."
The popularity of La Voz Kids has already inspired Fox to begin producing a similar show for its Spanish-language network, MundoFox. And other major English-language networks may soon be knocking off the knockoff to boost their ratings with singing kids, too.