NEW YORK: So what’s new on TV?
The new season of America’s Got Talent starts Tuesday at 9 p.m. New judges include former Spice Girl Mel B. and supermodel/personality Heidi Klum, who are joining forces with Howie Mandel and Howard Stern. New York’s Radio City Music Hall is the spectacular new venue.
Even so, the roots of this NBC variety competition are steeped in TV antiquity, reaching back to the medium’s infancy.
It was on June 20, 1948, that The Ed Sullivan Show (then known as The Toast of the Town) began its 24 seasons of jugglers, opera singers, comedians, animal acts and (of course) Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
It was also 65 years ago that The Original Amateur Hour moved to television after a successful run on radio (its final CBS telecast was in 1970).
The variety show was pronounced dead decades ago. And after The Gong Show in the 1970s and ’80s, and Star Search, which folded in 1995, talent competitions also seemed kaput.
But Simon Cowell has done his part to resurrect both genres.
He was, of course, the tart-tongued judge when American Idol began its epoch-changing run on Fox in 2002.
With his Syco Entertainment, he now serves as a creator, producer and judge on Fox’s The X Factor, which come fall starts its third season.
And off-camera, he is the driving force of America’s Got Talent, now starting its eighth season.
In a recent phone interview from his native London, the 53-year-old mega-impresario recalled enjoying talent shows like Opportunity Knocks and New Faces as a child.
And he described how a few years ago, amid the boom of singing competitions, he hatched the idea for the broader-based talent show America’s Got Talent. He was watching a singing show in Britain when a contestant warbled a too-familiar song, and very badly, “and I remember thinking: ‘I’d actually rather watch a dancing dog than listen to her.’
“Then I said to myself, ‘I used to LOVE that kind of show! Why don’t we bring back that type of show again?”’
So he did. America’s Got Talent”(the first in Cowell’s global Got Talent franchise, with original versions of the format now produced in 56 territories) premiered in 2006. And last year (fittingly) a dog act, Olate Dogs, won the $1 million prize.
Cowell is expectedly bullish about the season ahead.
“The new panel has jelled very well. There’s really good chemistry with the judges and the host [Nick Cannon],” he said. He also sang the praises of the series’ new producer, Sam Donnelly: “She’s totally revitalized the American show. It’s by far the best we’ve done.”
Of course, AGT is hardly Cowell’s only project, even in the U.S.
Come fall, The X Factor returns on Fox after two seasons of conspicuously falling short of what the audience was led to expect.
Will its third be the charm?
“If you’d asked me that question even a month ago,” Cowell replied, “I would have said I honestly don’t know.” But recent auditions in Charleston, S.C., were “by far the best two days we’ve shot” since the series began, he declared.
“It suddenly just clicked. And there’s one audition in particular that’s probably one of my favorites that I’ve ever been involved in — a one-in-10-million audition. I can’t stop thinking about it.
“I think we may have got it right,” he summed up.
The talent-show derby has been dominated in recent months by the hearty performance of NBC’s The Voice (whose producers include reality mogul Mark Burnett) and the ratings erosion of American Idol, whose judging panel Cowell exited three years ago.
“Not my problem anymore,” he chuckled when asked to diagnose what is plaguing Idol.
“It’s so much in my past now,” he said. “I deliberately this year didn’t watch a single second of the show.”
Maybe publicized clashes between its judges (only one of whom — maybe — will be back next season) upstaged the performers. Maybe the show is getting old in the tooth. Or maybe, with all the rival talent shows (including ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance and even AMC’s new docureality series, Showville), the genre is glutted.
“There is no question about it, there are too many,” Cowell said. “But funnily enough, that doesn’t bother me. It makes you more focused.”
Asked the most important thing he focuses on, Cowell didn’t pause before replying: “Relevancy. Somebody once said to me, ‘Disco died in the ’70s.’ Those words haunt me. You have to stay relevant in EACH decade.”
But how? “I listen. I listen to people who’ve had more experience than me. And I listen to 16- and 17-year-olds. I’m not threatened by someone who knows more than me. I just want them to TELL me!
“I love learning new things,” said the man world-famous for his on-the-air outspokenness. “I’d rather listen than talk.”