Winning Ways

This summer's hot TV programs are talent competition that showcase amateur performers in all their glory


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 a 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 bull's-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 Dancing With the Stars (ABC), 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 against his mouth was the highest-rated primetime 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-money-making 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 surprisingly, more talent shows are on the way, including the arrival tonight at 8 of CBS's Rock Star: Supernova, in which 15 hopefuls will compete to become the 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 onstage and off 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, it looks like the first half of each Idol season, when the focus is on auditions.

But industry executives and pop-culture analysts say the show's appeal is based on more than just imitation. America's Got Talent re-imagines vaudeville for the channel-surfing mindset of viewers today - and does so in a casual, freewheeling style that perfectly speaks to a summertime sensibility.

"Variety is the key here," Cowell said in a telephone news 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. Not that the characterization bothers Cowell.

He said he was "honored" to have America's Got Talent compared with 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.

"You can watch that show and flip back and forth between two or three other shows, and not miss a thing - catching only the acts you want to see. Most of the talent competitions work that way."

Peroutka says the formula "fits" neatly with "both the reduced attention spans of the younger generations and the sensibility of our remote-control culture."

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