As reality competition series go, America’s Got Talent is a bit of a rare bird. Launching its 13th season late last month—with Season 12 up for Emmys consideration—Simon Cowell’s NBC series has been on the air since 2006, and only continues to increase its viewership over time.
Remaining the United States’ number one show of the summer over the last 12 years, America’s Got Talent hit an average of 16 million viewers per episode in Season 12, with almost 3 billion views registered across social media platforms. A true global phenomenon, AGT has been sold in 184 territories worldwide, with over 70 versions of the show produced around the world.
Less clear cut for the candid trio is why the series never seemed to catch on with the Television Academy, even with its immense popularity and high production value. In its run to date, AGT has only ever registered one Emmy nomination—for Outstanding Hairstyling, back in 2011.
For the judges, though, making the series is its own reward, an everyday reminder that the American Dream is very much alive. Continuing to strive after new creative heights as the series moves forward, there is always the prospect of future statuettes.
Certainly, Season 13 is a source of pride for Mandel, Klum and Mel B. Of the new season, Mandel simply says, “Every bar that has been set has been crushed.”
Each of you came to America’s Got Talent at different times. Looking back, what was it that initially excited you about it?
Heidi Klum: I’ve always watched this show. I don’t really watch a lot of TV, but I’ve always been a fan. So when this came along, I was very flattered, very honored, and very excited. Because now, I got to have the best seat in the house, instead of sitting at home watching it. It’s the best show to be on, in terms of the talent, in terms of my own entertainment watching what goes on in front of me. It’s fun because it’s a variety show; it’s not just one genre. It’s so many different, fun things.
Mel B: It’s very expansive, and we get the best seat in the house. Right there live.
Howie Mandel: Simon always says, “We like people.” The thing is that we’re all fans of entertainers. We relate to the people, and I think that’s the reason it’s a number one show. I think the relatability to each of us as judges and people who work on the show is equal to those who are watching at home. Everybody’s got a dream. Everybody has a hope, and everybody has no attention span. So if you don’t like what you’re watching, two minutes later, there’s something totally different.
How has AGT compared to other unscripted series you’ve participated in?
Mel B: I don’t think there’s anything like America’s Got Talent because it is the ultimate variety show, and you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s really, really exciting. Heart-stopping.
Mandel: America’s Got Talent is the last bastion—and the only bastion—of real variety television. Television was created as another way of projecting vaudeville. All those vaudeville shows, that’s where everybody went before there was TV; in between movies, people went to theaters to see the juggler, and the magician, and the singer. Then, there became shows in America like Ed Sullivan, where everybody would gather around on Sunday night. That’s what made Elvis, Elvis. That’s what made The Beatles, The Beatles. And that is what’s happening with America’s Got Talent.
Could you speak to the process in curating contestants for a show where the talents on display are so diverse?
Mandel: The curating is amazing. Our show is probably the most well-produced show I have ever even been a part of or even watched. And people don’t realize it. And all these other shows that win awards are taking from…
Mel B: America’s Got Talent. And America’s Got Talent hasn’t even been nominated for any of them.
Mandel: If you look at the Academy Awards, which is a well-produced show, or the Emmys, or any of these big award shows, that’s…
Klum: A fraction of what happens here.
Mandel: Yeah. Less than one episode of our show. So when you talk about even curating what’s going to happen in the show, 24/7, 365 days a year, there are submissions online, and our producers are always going through them. Whether it’s somebody who just walks in to a lineup, or it’s a tape they’ve watched, they know what America wants to see, and the beauty is, it’s opened up to the world. They’re bringing people…
Klum: From Korea, from China…
Mel B: Philippines, Japan, everywhere.
Mandel: You realize America is the place to come and make it. If you make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.
Klum: I mean, that’s why we’re all here.
Mandel: We have people this year that are stars and making a living in their own countries—wherever they come from—but it’s more important for them to make it here. We’ve become the world stage to come and perform on.
You watch an episode of our show and you talk about grandeur. Somebody from three stories, swinging from the rafters, and there are lasers and there’s fire. We go to commercial, we come back, and there’s just a little kid sitting at a piano. Then, you go to commercial, and you come back, and there are cars crashing on the stage. From musical numbers to stunts, to sports, it’s all packed into one show. I feel like we haven’t gotten credit for that. I’m just a small part of it, but the production has not gotten credit for that.
AGT is unique in that it’s the rare reality series that has continued to build its audience year by year, even 13 seasons in. Why do you think this has happened?
Klum: Because it’s variety. Because it has people who are young, old, and everyone in between. Whenever you think you have a talent, you can just show up, if the producers have looked at you previously. We’re there until 1 o’clock in the morning to find everyone, and push them forward so that America can judge them, and I think it’s astonishing to people to see how some people have these amazing talents when they’re sitting at a cash register somewhere, or they’re a lawyer somewhere. Or it’s a mom who has kind of put her thing on hold because she wanted to be there for her family. You hear their stories and you empathize with these people.
You can relate to them, and all of a sudden they belt out the most amazing song, or they do the most amazing, crazy thing that you’ve never seen before. So you feel for them, and you vote for them because you fall in love with certain people.
Mandel: I also believe, even though we’re non-scripted television, that our producers are the best storytellers on television. Because they take real stories and produce them and present it to the audience like no other show ever does. Those packages—you know those people. Even though you only know somebody for 90 seconds, they in a two-minute package could give you their whole history and make you exude emotion, like you should as a human being.
I’ll just add one more thing that Simon would have said. I don’t know if you know this, but AGT is the most successful format in the world. For all the formats that exist, there’s a reason why—not knowing the language, not knowing the country—this works in every culture.
It seems like we’re in a surreal, odd age of celebrity. In one day, a young boy can yodel in an Illinois Walmart and, out of nowhere, find himself the subject of Internet fascination.
Mandel: That’s possible, but I will tell you, as somebody who came out here to do comedy, and maybe somebody who came out here originally to do fashion, when we came out and started, there was like one place to go. I would go to The Comedy Store. Now, because of social media, there are opportunities. But then again, that makes it harder to make some noise. To be disruptive is the point.
Our show set a record last year. We had three billion hits on all platforms of social media. So they have figured out—and again, I’m giving it back to our production team—a way of being a little bit disruptive. So being on America’s Got Talent is a little more important and a little more out there than just being in your underpants on your bed, recording yourself. That’s what half the people on YouTube are doing.
What were the most memorable moments for you this past season?
Klum: I loved The Regurgitator. He’s someone that will always be stuck in my mind. He would swallow things and then regurgitate them back up, but they weren’t wet. I mean, he would do the craziest things. I was in love with him. I’m not sure America was ready for him—I think people were a little bit weirded out. But to me, so talented.
Mandel: More than the talent, I got moved by the humanity and human stories. Last season with Kechi, that’s a girl that was the lone survivor of a plane crash.
Mel B: She’s burnt from head to toe…
Mandel: Like 80% of her body. You think about that. You look at that and you go, “What would I do in that position?”
Klum: She was super shy before. It was hard for her to look at people, and here she is on the biggest stage in the world, singing and feeling good about herself. Her whole self-esteem and everything has fully changed through the course of being on this show.
Mandel: You watch somebody survive and soar and dream, and then as a viewer and a judge, everything you are worried about kind of falls by the wayside. It’s people like that and stories like that that put people’s lives into perspective.