May 14, 2012 at 2:56 AM ET
Love him or hate him, Howard Stern is looking like just the man to reinvent “America’s Got Talent.”
Both controversial and compassionate, he brings an element of danger and unpredictability to the aging reality show. Even producers admit they are never quite sure what he might say or do next.
After six years, NBC’s highest rated summer series was becoming a bit predictable, too plain vanilla. Despite its 15 million or so viewers, “AGT” began to lack edge, excitement and cultural relevance. With the exception of opera cutie Jackie Evancho and a few other noteworthy acts, there was simply little buzz left.
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Stern changes all that. NBC and show creator Simon Cowell have made an all-in bet -- and a darn good one -- that the King of All Media will ignite a national conversation about the family-friendly variety show and drive ratings even higher.
Stern has become an icon in broadcasting because he knows exactly how to keep people guessing. At auditions in New York last month, he appeared to confirm his worst critics’ nightmares by reducing a second-grader to tears -- then artfully turned himself into a hero by rushing on stage and embracing the young boy.
“It is difficult to look into the eyes of a (kid) and say, ‘I am going to give you the X,’ ” he admitted a few weeks ago. “But I am not going to sit there and suck up to a 7-year-old either.” Nor should he.
I’ve had the opportunity to cover “AGT” since it debuted in 2006, and I was in the audience for Stern’s first day of auditions in Los Angeles. There was a new excitement in the air with him on the panel. The crowds were bigger and rowdier. But the rest of the show was largely the same: a steady parade of jugglers, comics and dancing poodles.
Stern approached each act with far greater compassion and constructive criticism than his predecessor, Piers Morgan -- who often seemed to be intentionally cruel and mean spirited. That could be one reason insiders say the new lineup of judges -- Stern, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel -- seems to get along so much better, both on screen and off.
The new season of “America’s Got Talent” kicks off Monday and features a breathtaking goth opera singer, an all male tap dance team and a stunt man who shoots himself out of a cannon. But the real star of the show is Stern.
“I wanted to do this because I really love the show,” he told me a few weeks ago. “I don’t want to be the guy who comes in here and ruins it.”
There seems to be little danger of that.
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