I can’t remember the last time I watched America’s Got Talent, so I decided to end my one-man boycott this month. Summer TV has always been a pretty terrible assortment of reruns, burned-off episodes of shows that were cancelled months ago, and the kind of lighter-than-light entertainment that AGT epitomizes. Still, it’s silly for me to keep ignoring what has become the elephant in the room.
Now in its 15th season, AGT is undeniably television’s beast of summer. I got a press release from NBC last week with the headline, “America’s Got Talent Has Ranked as the #1 Most-Watched Entertainment Show Every Week It’s Aired an Original Since the Week of Sept. 14-20, 2015.” That is not network bluster or creative accounting. With 8.3 million viewers a week, AGT is one of the biggest shows on television at any time of the year. Corralling all those eyeballs during the summer months, when people usually have better things to do than watch TV, is just short of a miracle.
So how does AGT do it? I tuned in to find out. And though my opinion is shaped only by the auditions and not the live competitions that will somehow air next month — more on that in a moment — I do have a sense of why AGT succeeds, despite its carnival-grade assortment of novelty acts and musical performers whose post-TV careers never quite live up to the hype.
There are two essential ingredients to AGT's secret sauce. The first is the format. AGT takes two of the most classic and durable forms of summer TV — the variety show and the game show — and crashes them together. It was a pretty genius idea on the part of Simon Cowell, who seems to be behind 90 percent of musical competition shows airing around the planet. And it worked right away for NBC, despite the fact that the first season featured Regis Philbin as the host and David Hasselhoff, Piers Morgan, and Brandy as judges. (In the second season they replaced Regis with Jerry Springer, and Brandy with Sharon Osbourne, proving the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.)
I don’t have access to minute-by-minute ratings, but I can’t imagine a whole lot of people sit through every two-hour AGT show. That’s the beauty of the format — you don’t have to. One minute there’s a high-flying acrobatic dance team, the next minute some beardo is singing about his recovery. It’s ultimate short-attention-span theater, which may explain why three ventriloquists have won AGT (including Terry Fator, arguably the most famous graduate of the show's earlier seasons).
Over time Cowell and the show’s producers have continually tweaked the format, and now what I see is a show that is much more with the times — more racially diverse, more millennial-friendly. The show has gone through four hosts and a dozen judges, and looks a hell of a lot more like America than those first two seasons.
Also, this is not the reality TV I remember from the hard-edged years when American Idol and X Factor were on Fox. Like all shows of its genre, the opening weeks of AGT are devoted to auditions, where the good and not-so-good are run through a Gong Show-like gauntlet. The four celebrity judges can agree to send the contestant forward in the competition… or smother their dreams on the spot, before a huge studio audience and 8.3 million viewers at home.
One of the reasons I stopped watching reality competition shows is I grew to dislike their practice of bringing in contestants just so they could be unceremoniously buzzed out. These unfortunates, for reasons of self-delusion or whatever, did not realize how out of their league they were. It’s the cheapest, most insulting trope in reality TV — the overconfident contestant laid low by, well, reality — followed by the abject exit interview. Except when bears are involved, it’s not my idea of entertainment.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that these days each week’s episode of AGT during auditions is produced like an uplifting two-hour documentary special. Using slick editing and inspirational music, these episodes dwell on contestants who actually have talent (you know, like the show title says), with next to no time wasted on humiliating those contestants who fail to make the grade. Sometimes the uplift exceeds the talent. I’m not sure, for instance, how far Archie Williams is going to make it in the competition, but as a man wrongfully incarcerated at Angola for 37 years, he should be allowed a moment on stage, especially to sing that song:
One reason I was interested to catch these episodes was that COVID-19 shut down the auditions just as they were getting wrapped up. Viewers are going to see AGT going through all four stages of shutdown. Last week’s episode was stage one — people getting sick and producers getting worried. Eric Stonestreet stepped in for judge Heidi Klum after she developed flu-like symptoms and was awaiting results of her COVID-19 test (negative, it turns out).
Then, as that was going on, stage two happened: AGT producers exercised caution by disinviting the audience and holding the auditions in an empty auditorium. We should see that in tonight’s episode. But the show must go on — until it doesn’t, and that’s stage three: the shutdown. Stage four involves getting back into production using teleconferencing software. I have no idea how AGT is going to pull that off, especially if magicians are involved.
But as I said, there are two ingredients to AGT’s secret sauce. One is the format. The other is the calendar. AGT is and always will be a summer show, the cream of an admittedly weak crop of TV offerings. NBC has been tempted to move the show to the regular season on the theory that its audience would be even bigger, but I don’t think this format works at any other time of the year beside summer, except for an occasional all-star edition like AGT: The Champions, which aired this winter (and introduced the show’s new host, Terry Crews). To watch a trapeze act, followed by a country singer, followed by an explosive dance troupe, is to enjoy the circus from your own home without harming animals. It’s as summer as oldies radio, weak beer, and a ratatouille loaded with zucchini. AGT is all that, plus ventriloquists.
America's Got Talent airs Tuesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on NBC.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.