A 21-year-old dancer who calls herself Lady Shiva, a girl of 11 with a voice like R&B legend Aretha Franklin, former Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, and a 33-year-old man in eye makeup and angel wings doing a balancing act with dagger and sword — this is the stuff of which television’s hottest summer shows are made.
As flamboyant and sometimes bizarre as the lineups for Fox TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” might seem, the ratings say the two Wednesday-night reality-show competitions are scoring a bulls-eye with millions of mainstream viewers.
Through two weeks of the head-to-head warfare, “So You Think You Can Dance,” a copycat of last summer’s hit ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” and “America’s Got Talent,” a hyped-up vaudeville for the age of the short attention span, have each attracted audiences of more than 10 million viewers per episode. Last week, the new NBC series — hosted by the old Regis Philbin and featuring such offbeat contestants as a man who balanced a 300-pound stove in his mouth — was the highest-rated prime-time entertainment program of the week — and finished second with the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
“Those ratings are even more impressive when you consider that the two programs were in direct competition,” said Robert J. Thompson, director for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
“From a viewer-popularity and network moneymaking point of view, one of the most striking things about `America’s Got Talent’ is that it’s only been on the air two weeks and NBC has already aired two hours of replays that drew millions of viewers. Two weeks, and already in rerun — those instant replays are extra money.”
Not surprising, more talent shows are on the way. CBS this week launched “Rock Star: Supernova,” in which 15 hopefuls compete to become the new lead singer for a rock group created by Tommy Lee of Motley Crue. On July 18, ABC will launch “The One: Making of a Music Star” — a 20-episode series that will follow 11 contestants as they train and compete for a recording contract with the label that includes Sting, U2 and Sheryl Crow.
From “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (ABC) in 1999 to “Survivor” (CBS) in 2000 and “American Idol” (Fox) in 2002, summertime has provided network television with some of its biggest hits in recent years. Seen by 12.4 million viewers, the debut of “America’s Got Talent” drew a larger audience for its premiere than any of those three series that went on to become ratings powerhouses.
Produced by “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell and featuring a copycat three-judge panel, “America’s Got Talent” certainly looks like the show that made Cowell a household name — at least, the first half of each “Idol” season when the focus is on auditions.
But industry executives and pop-culture analysts say the appeal is based on more than just imitation. “America’s Got Talent” re-imagines vaudeville for the channel-surfing mind-set of viewers today — and does so in a casual, freewheeling style that speaks to a summertime sensibility.
“Variety is the key here,” Cowell said in a telephone conference. “In the space of 15 minutes (of the first show), we saw a juggler, an acrobat, a great boy band, and an amazing 14-year-old singer followed up by an 80-year-old male stripper — It’s variety under the best possible scenario.”
“Best” hardly seems the word for a juggler who dropped every item he threw up in the air at least once, or a tenor who was greeted by boos and the sound of the judges’ buzzers trying to end his act four notes into his song. Many of the acts are more suited for “The Gong Show” than “American Idol.”
Cowell said he was “honored” to have “America’s Got Talent” compared to “The Gong Show,” but added: “The main difference between our show and `The Gong Show’ is that everyone on this show genuinely believes they are fantastic — they aren’t coming on as a joke.”
He acknowledged, however, that there are performers who are “so staggeringly bad” that viewers must wonder, “What has your mother told you?”
But others say the early ratings success for “America’s Got Talent” is not so much a matter of content (good or bad), as it is form — the frenetically changing lineup and the ability to follow the show while tuning in and out.
“It’s the perfect kind of show for people who use their remote control to watch more than one program at a time,” said Shirley Peroutka, associate professor of popular culture at Goucher College.
Peroutka says the formula “fits” neatly with “both the reduced attention spans of the younger generations and the sensibility of our remote-control culture.”
That is not necessarily a bad thing: “Watching `America’s Got Talent’ also has the feel of multi-tasking. We don’t want to be doing just one thing at a time any more, and I think that carries over to our TV viewing as well.”
Vaudeville, a dominant form of popular entertainment in the early 20th century prior to the ascendancy of radio and TV, is the old show-biz formula that matches up best with that new mind-set.
“`America’s Got Talent’ brings back Ed Sullivan’s variety show — which itself was an early TV version of the vaudeville formula of exploring all these other kinds of acts that don’t fall into the category of musical performance,” said Syracuse University’s Thompson.
“`American Idol’ limits itself to singers and `So You Think You Can Dance’ limits itself to dancers, but here you have a man with elastic skin, a woman with a mustache and an 11-year-old who sounds like a seasoned professional recording act — and none of them is allowed to stay on the stage for more than an instant on a show that moves like a house on fire. The genius of `America’s Got Talent’ is that it snuck vaudeville back on TV in the Trojan Horse of a show that looks like `American Idol’ but is very, very different.”
Rich and famous
For any differences they might have, all the summertime TV talent competitions promise to make contestants rich and famous — a prospect especially appealing in these nervous economic times.
“People aren’t tuning in to see a train wreck on our show,” said “Rock Star: Supernova” executive producer Lisa Hennessy.
“It’s actually inspirational seeing 15 rockers compete for the chance to join a new super group. I think a lot of kids have the dream — in front of a bathroom mirror with a hairbrush — of becoming a rock star. And this is about fulfilling that dream even for older viewers who once might have had the dream and wonder what it would have been like to pursue it.”
“America’s Got Talent,” which promises $1 million to the winning act, hits the same notes in opening with Hasselhoff, one of the judges, announcing: “I’m looking for the American Dream.”
Ditto for Cowell: “If I didn’t think we could find a star, I wouldn’t do the show. It’s as simple as that.”
All of which seems over the top, given the fact that for all the “Star Searches” and “Last Comic Standings,” the only reality series that has proven capable of creating stars is “American Idol.”