NBC found an unlikely jewel in "America's Got Talent" two years ago. And, as networks often do, it nearly ruined the surprise hit. After a successful debut season, the network announced that "Talent" would leave its comfy summer home and compete with ratings juggernaut "American Idol" in the winter.
Thankfully, that didn't happen. "America's Got Talent," which returns Tuesday on NBC, is an underdog, and so are its contestants. It couldn't survive a fight with the likes of "Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars," so for a couple of months every summer, a collection of singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, contortionists and more take over TV.
The season fits: The show became last year's most watched summer program, with nearly 14 million people tuning in for its second-season finale.
Unapologetically summertime fare, 'Talent' is sweet and easily digestible. While it appears to be lightweight, it's surprisingly filling. While cynics gripe that reality TV shows are all the same, "America's Got Talent" offers stories of human triumph that looks a lot like what TV fans are used to — a stage, three judges, America votes — but is unlike anything normally seen on television.
Equal parts high-school talent show, "Gong Show" and "Idol," "America's Got Talent" reaches to the edges of the entertainment world, giving a platform to acts that might otherwise be stuck on street corners or in community centers. It's heartwarming, it's funny, and it's high stakes competition, with $1 million on the line for the winner.
With its formula nearly perfected, "America's Got Talent" now faces competition from new oddball summer reality shows that are cropping up as networks look to make some quick bucks on low budgets.
Next week, ABC unveils "Wipeout," which runs 24 different contestants each week through an obstacle course full of mud pits and surprising punches to the face. "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" puts Americans through the notoriously zany and sometimes-dangerous challenges typically found on Japanese game shows.
These shows appear to be missing the point that has made "America's Got Talent" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance?" summer's recent stalwarts. The new programs shoot for humiliation while "Talent" and "Dance" highlight skill, ability and achievement.
Chainsaw juggling? Martial arts dancing?
Viewers never know what's coming on "America's Got Talent." An illusionist? A martial-arts dancing crew? A chainsaw juggler? None would seem out of place.
Sure, there are a few acts that make it through as jokes. (Boy Shakira and Leonid the Magnificent, anyone?) But the show is typically an outlet for hard-working entertainers, even if their 15 minutes of fame fly by in one or two on the show. "Talent" offers time and exposure that these acts can't find anywhere else, and they're remarkably grateful for the spotlight.
Impressionist and ventriloquist Terry Fator had a dream of introducing his old-fashioned craft to a new generation, and he captivated the audience and took home the $1 million prize. Since the show, Fator is enjoying huge success in Las Vegas. He recently signed a five-year, $1.5 million deal to perform in a theater named after him at The Mirage. All this for a man who said he once performed in an auditorium where only one person showed up.
These oft-touching stories are veiled oh-so thinly beneath the familiar formula masterminded by "Idol" judge Simon Cowell, who helped bring "America's Got Talent" to the United States and serves as executive producer.
"America's Got Talent" works because it doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a wink and a nod around every corner, starting with the fact that David Hasselhoff is one of the show's arbiters of ability. Sharon Osborne fills the encouraging Paula Abdul role, with Piers Morgan as the requisite snarky Brit.
In two seasons, Morgan has established himself as the summertime Simon, taking on the role of villain when performers need to be slammed. He does it with enough pompousness in his British accent to make Americans think he thinks he's better than us. But his slick suit and greased up curly locks make him just cartoonish enough to make us feel better.
That's where the "Idol" similarities end. Host Jerry Springer will never be compared to Ryan Seacrest, and the names of Fator and "Talent's" Season 1 winner Bianca Ryan won't soon be confused with Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
By the time summer is over, viewers will all move on to the regular lineup of fall TV. So while it "America's Got Talent" and its hodgepodge cast of underdogs wouldn't stand a chance against the "Grey's Anatomys," "Houses" and "CSIs" of the world, but for the next few months, it can happily enjoy its moment in the summer sun.
Victor Balta is a writer in Philadelphia.