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August 20, 2011

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'America's Got Talent' dominates summer TV

SUMMERTIME is for cutting yourself some slack, whether that means reading potboilers poolside or testing the limits of fried food at county fairs.

Television has its own seasonal playlist, mostly dominated by reality shows and topped by "America's Got Talent" ("AGT"), the NBC contest that takes an expansive view of achievement.

Yes, angelic-voiced Jackie Evancho, 11, was a star last season on "AGT." But the show, airing Tuesdays and Wednesdays and hosted by Nick Cannon, welcomes much more than elegant child sopranos.

There's a wide variety of singers as well as dancers, the stuff of other TV contests. Then add contortionists, impressionists, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists and "danger acts," the injury-defying sort that push "AGT" onto vaudeville turf.

"For me, each year it's about giving the audience acts that others don't feature. We want different singers than 'American Idol' and 'X Factor'," said the show's executive producer, Cecile Frot-Coutaz. "And we want young, cool variety acts that people talk about."

The attempts to be different aren't always pretty.

"Whether it's 'AGT' or not, it's amazing what somebody will do to garner fame," said Howie Mandel, who judges the show with Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan. "It's probably more apparent in our audition rounds where it goes everywhere from brilliance to insanity."

"America's Got Talent" is hitting a ratings high in its sixth year, both among total viewers and advertiser-favored young adults, according to Nielsen Co.

The Tuesday episodes are up 22 percent compared with last year, drawing an audience of 14.6 million, while Wednesdays are averaging 12 million, a 12-percent increase over 2010.

Morgan puts the show in the context of his native Britain's pop culture, recalling summer variety shows held by seaside towns and dubbed "End of the Pier."

"It reminds me of 'AGT' - you never know what's going to happen," said CNN host Morgan.

That element of surprise extends to the judges, particularly Morgan and Mandel, who engage in regular on-screen sparring. They could be following the model that Simon Cowell, creator of "AGT" and the original "Britain's Got Talent," built with Paula Abdul on "American Idol."

But unlike Cowell and Abdul, who are reuniting as judges on Cowell's "The X Factor" and admit to a mutual fondness, Morgan and Mandel seem to genuinely irritate each other.

When Mandel joined the series last year and showed his fondness for silly acts, he said, Morgan started calling him "annoying, a half-wit," Mandel recalled. "Now he's not lying. I will do anything to annoy him."

Responds Morgan: "He does annoy the hell out of me. He's as annoying off-screen as on-screen."

The semifinals start Tuesday, and Osbourne would like to see one of the more offbeat acts eventually take the US$1 million prize. "If a singer wins we're like every other talent show on TV," Osbourne said.


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