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‘Got Talent’: How Simon Cowell Created a Record-Breaking Reality Format

“America’s Got Talent” is close to world domination.

The variety talent show, now in its 13th season, isn’t just an NBC summer stalwart. It’s an international juggernaut. Airing almost everywhere, it has earned a berth in Guinness World Records as television’s most-successful reality format. It was the perfect show at the perfect time — and it all began with Simon Cowell in his kitchen.

“The truth is, it was the first apartment I had bought myself, and I was in the kitchen cooking dinner,” Cowell says. “And there was a rival music show to ours. Some girl was so awful I would rather watch a singing dog than listen to her.”

This was in 2004, when “American Idol” was the most-watched show on American television, and similar arch assessments from Cowell often drew more heat than singers’ performances. That evening as he cooked, Cowell considered mounting a show not bound by the usual format and rules.

“We made a horrible pilot, and out of the blue NBC heard I was making a show and what it was like, and they genuinely bought it in the room,” he recalls. “And that was it.”

The format is more inclusive than other shows: no age minimum or maximum. Every genre — and some that defy classification — is welcome onstage. Talent isn’t even a prerequisite, although those hopefuls don’t get very far.

“When I did ‘Idol’ there was a limited age range,” Cowell says. “If you were over 29 you could not be an ‘Idol.’ That was ridiculous. I never got that. The beauty about this show is there are no rules whatsoever.”

That unfettered spirit can often be painfully evident. People line up for blocks at open auditions, armed with little more than desperate delusion. For many, standing in the spotlight before the famous judges is a highlight of their lives.

A few years ago during Manhattan auditions, a woman in ill-fitting clothes struggled through a stand-up act. Howard Stern, then on the panel, knew she didn’t have a chance. Still, he recognized how important this moment was to her. He sent her home, but so gently she left the room beaming.

Tenderness may be in short supply on most reality shows. Yet part of the reason “Got Talent” is a hit show is because “it has such a warm heart,” says Trish Kinane, an executive producer and president of entertainment programming at FremantleMedia North America.

“He doesn’t patronize the audience by saying something is good when it isn’t.”
Sam Donnelly

“I love to celebrate eccentricity and whatever you do, you have a chance of getting on the show if you do it well,” she says. “They embrace the true eccentricity of ordinary people.”

Those eccentricities shift geographically, which is why “Got Talent” flourishes in 194 territories. Whether in Eritrea or Switzerland, whether people create mandala art or throw knives, one concept defines the franchise globally.

“The one word that best describes the show is unifying,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC’s president of alternative and reality. “You can watch it in bits, as a family, and on your own, and you will be surprised and delighted. The show’s wonderfully simple format is a thing of genius because what it really allows is the creation of multiple moments of joy, multiple moments of compassion and, for me, multiple glimpses into what makes people great.”

“America’s Got Talent” came of age alongside YouTube, a platform made for brief distractions. And, those few minutes marveling at trained cats or card tricks add up. Fans have spent an astounding 6.6 trillion hours watching them. The YouTube Got Talent channel, alone, has nearly 4.6 million subscribers and drew 800 million viewers last year.

Switching judges and hosts has not affected its popularity. Originally, David Hasselhoff, Brandy Norwood and Piers Morgan judged and Regis Philbin hosted. Now Howie Mandel, Mel B., Heidi Klum and Cowell sit on the judges’ panel and Tyra Banks hosts. But ultimately, the draw is the contestants, Cowell says.

Now, more than ever, the show is timely because people crave lighter fare when the world news is dire, say execs.

“It feels relevant by being relevant because people want to share it,” Telegdy says.

Part of the franchise’s appeal is the bizarre. As with so many of us, Cowell wonders just how people learned they possess weird talents. Mulling over the strangest acts he’s seen, Cowell cites, “the woman who could smash beer cans with her boobs. At what point in your life did you discover you can do that and why? I am like the crazy candle who attracts the crazy moth.”

CREDIT: Vivian Zink/NBC

Yet for every klutzy dancer, tone-deaf singer or man bulging his eyeballs — yes, that’s his act — there are people with extraordinary talent who are sheer fun, including Darci Lynne Farmer, the 12-year-old singer and ventriloquist who won last year. She’s following the show’s tradition, too. Singer Bianca Ryan, then 11, was the first winner, and ventriloquist Terry Fator won season two.

“America’s Got Talent” executive producers Sam Donnelly and Jason Raff credit Cowell as being the “best” at judging talent. “He doesn’t patronize the audience by saying something is good when it isn’t. He has this great ability to see everything through the eyes of the viewer. He can see what works and what doesn’t work,” Donnelly says.

“He has this natural curiosity,” adds Raff. “An act comes out, and judges ask questions. He has that curiosity to talk to people and gets stuff out of them and learns about them and get those compelling stories out.”

Grandparents, parents and children can watch the show together with everyone engaged, which adds to its global success. The format is intentionally unpredictable. If you don’t like a particular act, give it a moment, the producers point out: something new is waiting in the wings.

This goes to the heart of what Telegdy refers to as “the ‘V’ word” aka variety. “Their theme is something different every few minutes. It allows the opinionated viewer to watch at home and judge, to make noises, ‘Well, I didn’t like that, but what’s next?’” he says.

And the franchise continues to grow, with new markets in the Maldives, Ireland and Sri Lanka.

“As long as there are talented people I can’t see this going away,” Cowell says. “When I was in Vegas recently, I was driving down the strip and I saw so many posters with a lot of our acts, and I was thinking, ‘Vegas will be around for a long time, so why shouldn’t it last as long as Vegas?’”

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