"America's Got Talent" returns tonight with a whole new group of contestants to compete in the hit series' ninth season. Also returning are last season's panel of judges – Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Mel B and Howie Mandel, as well as Nick Cannon as host.
At a press conference for the new season, the judges talked about the changes for the new season, the contestants and more.
Are there any format changes this season?
Heidi Klum: We have a golden buzzer. Normally we all have a red buzzer, so if we don't like an act, we can buzz. But now every judge has the opportunity to save someone. So if someone gets three Xs, they're automatically out. So if you believe in that person that much, you can hit the golden buzzer, but only one time throughout the whole season you can save that person.
Howie Mandel: So it's tough. You're actually saving a life. And in that moment, we have to make a decision. Only one time if they don't get through, we get to use that and save a life.
Mel B: Howie used it the other day.
Howie Mandel: I was the first. And we're only halfway through, so I don't know if I squandered my opportunity.
There's another couple of changes. Boot camp, which I'm thrilled about, is going to be in front of a live audience. Usually they would show up and it would be the four of us sitting there. As a performer, I think that when there's an audience there, you rise to the occasion.
Also ‑‑ and this is new and different ‑‑ we, as judges, are only doing the auditions in New York and L.A. So whereas an act might have been comfortable when we used to go to Kansas or Portland or whatever, it would be uncomfortable for them because they're new and it's fresh and everything, but they would be in their hometown. We just did auditions at Madison Square Garden, so they're on the stage at Madison Square Garden. They're [also] going to be on the stage at the Dolby Theater where the Academy Awards are.
So their first time out, it's an epic experience, much bigger, much more pressure than has ever been had before, and I'm telling you as somebody who has been watching ‑‑ we're halfway through ‑‑ people have risen to the occasion, and we're seeing new and better.
What are you looking for in contestants?
Howie Mandel: We're not looking for the best guy to chew through a license plate. We are looking for America's best talent, and I find that almost easier to judge than singing, because singing is really subjective. But if somebody comes on stage and does something original, something you've never seen before and captures your attention and you believe America's attention and you believe that this is so good that at some point somebody's gonna want to buy a ticket and show up and see this again, then I think that's pretty easy to judge.
Heidi Klum: It's like a novelty act. It's something that you've never seen before. Sometimes people come and they just do super silly, stupid things where you're like, "Okay. I've never seen this before, but no one should really see that." Then there's other people that do something really unusual, and you're like, "I can't even believe someone would think about doing something like that, and people should see that because I've never seen this before and America should see this," so we just push these people forward, and then at the end of the day, America can judge if they want them to go into the finals or not.
Could the judges just talk a little about how hard it is when you have emotional stories?
Mel B: I think, for me, it's about the whole package. I want to like somebody as well. Even if their act is not so good, and I like them, obviously I'm not going to put them through. It has to be both. That act has to be good and they have to be likeable. At the end of the day, America is going to be voting for them. They're going to be choosing the winner, so it's kind of important, both, for me.
Heidi Klum: For me, if the act is not good, I don't care how sad or how deep the background story is. If the act is bad, the act is bad,and they get my X and my no.
Season 9 of "America's Got Talent" premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.