Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thoughts On A Bad Change

Tomorrow they announce the nominees for the Emmys, and I find myself a bit a loose ends, particularly since I busted out of a poker tournament I was playing in well before the money (okay, so I lasted much longer than Tim Gueguen, but it's small consolation – sorry about that one Tim but let's face it, neither one of us is likely to duplicate the achievement of Tuan Lam any time in the foreseeable) and there isn't much I really want to watch on TV at the moment. So I've been sitting around the computer, and blessing anyone responsible for the invention of air conditioning. It's not the heat, it's the humidity but the humidity here lately has been brutal.

Which is how, in an extremely roundabout manner, I found the subject for this piece. I was reading the comments on the Blog when I came across this one from Marissa Leone. She was commenting on my original post on this season of America's Got Talent which featured saxophone player Andrew Beal. Andrew was sent through to the Las Vegas call back session and then was never seen again. Marissa wrote: "What happened to him? Why the heck is he not in the top 20? I'm also unsure why they originally kicked Buttercup off and now she's magically back on the show. What's going on? I'm lost." Well Marissa, you're not the only one. I don't get why Andrew was deemed not good enough while Boy Shakira is in the top 20. I mean Boy Shakira?!

Okay, here's at least part of what happened. Seventy acts were sent through to Las Vegas from the original audition cycle. That included Andrew Beal, Buttercup and the rest. In Las Vegas all of the acts performed and the judges decided which thirty-five would be eligible for the final twenty. After they named the final thirty-five they then weeded that number down to the final twenty, this time with the requirement that ten of the acts would be singers and ten would be "non-singers." We didn't see the performances of each of the seventy acts who made it to Las Vegas – in fact we only really saw about seventeen acts performing in the two Las Vegas call back episodes and we didn't necessarily see the ones who made it to the semi-finals either. In fact there was one act – Robert Hatcher, the sewer worker from Cincinnati – who we have only seen in his semi-final appearance. Somewhere in the call back audition process, Andrew "Mr. Big 'Who's the Guy'" Beal was dropped while Boy Shakira (?!) and Bollywood inspired dancer Kashif Memon (likewise ?!) did.

Like a lot of people I'm amazed at some of these selections. The restriction on the number of singers hurt acts like Michael Strelo-Smith and The Three Redneck Tenors (okay these are acts that I really liked), but some of the selections in the non-singing category were absolutely bizarre. Just as an example they decided to allow magician Kevin James to go through which was a good choice even though his performance in the semi-finals was, to say the least, extremely disappointing, but they seem to have decided that they could only have one magic act which meant that Anthony Reed was passed over despite doing a technically difficult water escape trick known as the Aquarian Illusion, claiming that the trick was nothing new. And there were other non-musical acts that were eliminated for reasons that we'll never know because they weren't shown on the program, while Kashif Memon, whose act is sort of like dance karaoke (the only real description I can come up with) and Boy Shaikira (who is now officially supported by Vote For The Worst).

I put most of the blame for this on the new format that the show has adopted. In the first season approximately sixty acts made it through to the second round. They were split into four groups and the judges picked ten acts from each group to perform each week. The judges picked one act each week to go through to the finals and viewer phone votes picked a second act to go through. In the fifth week a "Wild Card" show was run, in which the four runners up in the viewer vote from each previous week, together with two choices by each judge from pool of acts that hadn't made it into their top ten each week, Again, two acts were chosen from this group, one by the judges and one by the viewers, making for a total of ten contestants in the finals.

There seem to be a couple of reasons for this change in format, which in some ways is much more like the American Idol format. A big problem in the first season was the preponderance of singers – five of the finalists were singers, and only two were non-musical acts – something that irritated Piers Morgan who wanted "a more diverse group of acts for the final." Another factor was a problem caused by NBC. Originally the series was meant to air beginning in January in the Sunday night slot eventually occupied by Grease: You're The One That I Want but at some point it was moved back to a weeknight timeslot in the summer. I am given to understand that some if not all of the original auditions were done for the original launch date. Part of the time change was the elimination of the results show. I have a suspicion – though of course I can't prove it – that the Las Vegas call backs may have been meant to at least partly to bridge the gap between the auditions in the third quarter of 2006 and the summer show. Because I would hate to think that producer Simon Cowell thought that what we have now is the best format for the show.

My personal feeling is that so many of the problems that people have been complaining about in this season of America's Got Talent would have been avoided if the show had stuck with its original format. Think of it. It wouldn't have been that hard to set up. Keep the seventy acts, and if the producers still want to maintain the equal split between singing and non-singing acts then have two weeks of singers and two weeks of non-singers. With six acts chosen by the judges from those who qualified but weren't picked in the four semifinal shows as Wild Cards (joined by the four acts that finished second in the viewer votes in the first four semi-final episodes) you would have forty-six of seventy acts (65%) that the judges initially decided were good enough to go forward being seen by the American public. And while Boy Shakira or Kashif Memon might just possibly have made it into one of the two episodes that didn't feature singers, I can't imagine that any of the judges would have wasted a "wild card" pick on them any more than I believe that the American public would vote them into the finals or even give them the second highest number of votes. And I think it would have made for far more entertaining television than the two Vegas call back episodes, where we saw most acts only as part of montages or as they were being eliminated or told that they were moving on.

So anyway Marissa, and everyone else, that's why you didn't see Andrew "Mr. Big 'Who's the Guy'" Beal on America's Got Talent after the episode where he totally blew us away. It's a shame too, because he and most of the other forty or so acts that didn't make it out of Las Vegas and who weren't seen performing on the one "Call Back episode" that actually showed performances deserved to be treated better than they were by the show's producers. I don't know if Andrew Beal or any of the other acts that we didn't see had more to their acts than what we saw in their auditions – maybe some of them were this season's David & Dania who did the same act the same way each of the three times they were on the show – but that's not the point. The point is that we the audience should at least have had a chance to decide that for ourselves instead of having Hasselhoff, Morgan and Osbourne deciding that these are the ten singers and the ten "variety" acts that are worthy of our consideration. The sad and truly annoying part is that the show, with this less than satisfactory format (from my point of view at least), is doing well in the ratings and I assume that if/when this show returns next year it will come back with this format because it's not "less successful" than the way the show was done originally, which in my view is a pity because I think that as viewers we're being cheated.

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