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America's Got Talent breaks the trend of reality TV competitions

Howie Mandel, senior "judge" on America's Got Talent
Howie Mandel, senior "judge" on America's Got Talent
Photo by Jemal Countess

On May 27, 2014, America's Got Talent will begin its ninth season on NBC.

This presents an emotional conundrum, as AGT somehow manages to embody both the best and worst of reality TV talent competitions.

The overall quality of a reality TV talent contest is best described as being equally proportionate to the quality of the judges. There is no shortage of TV programming with which this point could be illustrated, but it is best represented by the past and present kings of the genre: FOX's American Idol and NBC's The Voice.

NBC has ensured the quality of its lineup season after season by giving its judges a firm incentive to want to do their jobs as well as possible: They double as the artists' mentors and sponsors. In this way, each judge is staking their reputations on the quality of each season of The Voice, and by extension, are motivated to ensure that they find the best talent they possibly can.

Consequently, NBC has not had much trouble attracting top talents season after season. And though cynicism would dictate otherwise, they have not had trouble attracting well-qualified replacement coaches every time a coach from the previous season decides its time for a break.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is American Idol, which used to have judges motivated to try to find talent, but which fell hard from grace when it fell under the presumption that their judges did not need to be qualified as long as they were typecasted: One African American, one Latino, and at least one person who is nasty and constantly feuding with Ryan Seacrest and another judge.

Which is why The Voice is a success, critically and in the ratings alike, while American Idol is a hollow shell of its former self.

Following this logic, America's Got Talent should be an absolute disaster because it follows the same logic as American Idol. If anything, in fact, the AGT judges are worse, seemingly having been selected for their incredible lack of qualification.

On American Idol, the least effective judge feuds with the others because they have differing interpretations of what constitutes quality. On America's Got Talent, the other judges feud with Howie Mandel because he shows undeserved favoritism to acts he freely acknowledges have no talent at all.

Yet somehow, some way, America's Got Talent continues to buck the trend. Despite Mandel's best efforts to turn the show into an irredeemable train wreck year after year, AGT continues to attract a strong audience and top quality talent (so strong, in fact, that even top contestants on The Voice have trouble competing on America's Got Talent).

The simple explanation as to why is that, for fans and contestants alike, there is no alternative. No other show has an "anything goes" approach to who may or may not audition. Ergo, for the wildly original acts AGT has become known for like Terry Fator, William Close, Fighting Gravity and Team iLuminate, there was literally no reality TV alternative.

So while the talented singers American Idol hopes to attract abandon it in droves to audition for The Voice instead, America's Got Talent will continue to attract top talent and viewers alike, even in spite of Mandel's tireless efforts to drive them away.

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