‘America’s Got Talent’ Has A Secret: Oddballs Welcome

The Voice” has Josh Kaufman. “American Idol” has Caleb Johnson (and Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson). “America’s Got Talent” could have a guy who balances cakes on his arms.

The NBC show, which has become a summer perennial, launches its ninth season tonight just as the reality-competition genre comes under more scrutiny by TV executives. “American Idol,” arguably the best known example of the format, has begun to age, and Fox has already announced it will pull back on the number of hours of the show it airs next year. “The X Factor” has been cancelled. ABC trimmed its longrunning “Dancing With the Stars” to one night a week from two this past season. Even NBC’s “The Voice” has experienced some slackening, with its recent finale taking a ratings hit when it was aired against the finale of ABC’s spring season of “DWTS.”

“AGT,” as it is often called, isn’t immune from some of those trends. But the people behind the show think it has something that can keep it going for a very long time: A willingness to embrace the oddball.

“You do get the loveable kook who could break through,” said Howard Stern, who has been a judge on the program since 2012, in an interview. “AGT” has hosted any number of eccentric acts, whether it be contestants who jump barefoot onto broken glass, or a hopeful who dressed up as a pancreas.

It is that element more than any other that lends “AGT” a feeling of inclusiveness. Yes, any number of programs take unknown singers, dancers and comedians and turn them into household names, but only “AGT” holds out the possibility that someone who might have gotten rung off TV’s old “Gong Show” from the 1970s has a real shot at its million-dollar prize.

“’America’s Got Talent’ is about the margins as much as it is about finding the next great mainstream star. The sideshows and carnival-esque acts are part of the appeal of the program,” said David Gudelunas, an associate professor at Fairfield University who studies media and communications. “American culture has always loved to gawk at the most fringe acts. The singing competitions have all become a bit expected, and ‘AGT’ operates from just that presumption.”

“AGT” grew its overall audience in 2013 from 2012, according to Nielsen, even if its viewers between 18 and 49 – the audience most valued by advertisers – have slipped. Ad dollars allocated to the show are on the rise, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. In 2010, “AGT” won about $141.4 million, Kantar said. In 2013,it notched nearly $209 million, representing an increase of nearly 48%. Last season, three of the nation’s biggest telecommunications companies – Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T – were among the show’s biggest sponsors, putting a veritable blitz of gadget ads against the series.

Now the show is facing headier competition, When “AGT” debuted in 2006, the broadcast networks largely treated summer as they had for decades: as a time when viewership wasn’t substantial enough to warrant great amounts of scripted drama and comedy. In the last year, that attitude has changed. With cable offering more orignal series during the hot season, the broadcast networks are rising to meet the challenge, launching series such as CBS’ “Under the Dome” and “Extant” or a revival of “24” at Fox.

No matter what’s brewing, NBC believes “America’s Got Talent” has a long life ahead of it, said Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and latenight programming at NBC Entertainment. Part of the series’ charm, he explained, is its ability to deliver a very traditional “big old tent” format and a series of surprises at the same time. The show’s producers have also not hesitated to change the show’s format more quickly than others who run similar programs. He points to the number of changes behind the judges’ table, as well as various tweaks over the years. Indeed, in this season, “AGT” will introduce a “golden buzzer,” which lets a judge make a save when a contestant is eliminated by some of the other panelists. The concept originated with the German version of the show, said Telegdy.

Another element that sets the show apart from others like it is its broader performance roster. “If you don’t like what you see, stick around for 90 seconds,” said Howie Mandel, who is entering his fifth season as a judge on the show. NBC’s Telegdy said the number of acts on the show provides an experience similar to clicking through short clips on YouTube.

Viewers are given a feeling that everyone matters, not always true of a genre that sometimes uses less-talented contestants to gin up interest in early weeks (anyone remember ‘American Idol’s famous William Hung?) “ I think perhaps what distinguished AGT from some of the other reality shows is the extent to which it democratizes the experience of appearing on TV and potentially winning,” said Fabienne Darling-Wolf, an associate professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “Because the show does not focus on a specific talent, like ‘American Idol’ or ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ or require you to do something painful most viewers would not want to do, like ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Survivor,’ and their many spin-offs, anyone can find something to relate to.”

Or as Stern put it, “AGT” is the closest thing this generation of TV viewers has to finding the next Tiny Tim, the ukulele-playing singer who was discovered during an appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” As a judge, however, Stern said he has to make sure even the most unlikely contestant actually has talent and isn’t simply trying to use the show to become a viral sensation online.

Even if the strangest acts typically don’t win, there’s still the promise someone small could become the next big thing.”We really feel we can change people’s lives,” said Stern. “That’s huge. I love that. I still get turned on by it.”

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