LOS ANGELES – Chances are you’ve been bombarded this past week with ads promoting TV’s latest and greatest reality series, “American Idol: Once More With Feeling.”
It’s actually called “The World’s Best,” hosted by late-night darling James Corden. But you’re forgiven for screwing up the name. While its CBS premiere on Super Bowl Sunday guarantees initial interest, it could quickly take a back seat to all those other shows featuring spotlight-seekers who sing, dance or bend themselves into Crazy Straws to make celebrity judges swoon.
The mastermind most responsible for today’s crowded reality TV marketplace understands the skepticism; he just doesn’t care.
“I always think the genre is healthy,” said executive producer Mike Darnell, who helped launch “Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Voice.” “I cannot tell you how many times in my career I’ve heard that reality is dying, it’s dead, it’s never coming back. And then it always comes back.”
He’s got a point.
Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” in which celebrities compete in cosplay costumes that would get them laughed off a Mardi Gras float, is the most popular new series of the season. NBC’s “America’s Got Talent: The Champions,” a companion piece to the network’s summer smash, is more than holding its own, drawing nearly 12 million viewers a week, numbers even higher than those posted by “The Voice” last fall.
Darnell and his team know their shows need a twist to stand out. For “The Voice” it was spinning chairs. “America’s Got Talent” opened the application field to all ages and all shtick.
In “Best,” competitors are drawn from across the planet. P.T. Barnum would have salivated over the early lineup: The Monks of Steel, the Six-Octave Man, Hypnodog, the Giants of Light. At some point during the season, Edina-raised magician Justin Flom will represent mere mortals.
“We’re reflective of the world’s talent, rather than the specific countries, and that’s quite an exciting thing,” said executive producer Ben Winston. “It opens the pool up for us to find a Mongolian country singer. It allows us to find a Japanese singer.”
Once the acts get evaluated by the celebrity judges — Drew Barrymore, Faith Hill and RuPaul Charles — they face the “Wall of the World,” 50 international experts including everyone from a Swiss stuntwoman to a Danish ballet dancer. They ultimately help decide which performers move forward.
After 10 episodes, a winner will get $1 million and, presumably, an all-access pass to Cirque du Soleil.
Charles said one of the upsides from the early tapings has been watching American studio audiences root for contestants who don’t even speak English.
“This show represents the global promise we were all promised as kids, how we would all be interlinked,” said Charles, best known for hosting “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “Some of that has come true and a lot of it hasn’t. A lot of people are stuck in the 20th century and don’t want to move forward. This show represents the vision I had as a kid, and I dig that. We are more similar on this planet than we are not.”
One way “Best” will stick with the pack is by providing contestants with lots of warm fuzzies.
One of the initial draws to “Idol” was watching tone-deaf acts purposely selected to incur the wrath of Simon Cowell. But these days, judges are less likely to snap. If Barrymore and Hill hurt a fly they’d probably hotfoot it to confessional. Host Corden has built a reputation through his late-night show that makes Jimmy Fallon look like Mike Wallace.
“I have a sense that people have had enough of the meanness,” Charles said. “I know that in the past two years, if something comes on television where I can sense people are going to be mean to one another, I cannot watch it.
“Am I living in a pink cloud? Perhaps. But I’m 58 years old, I’ve seen a lot of nasty stuff. I don’t want any more. Not right now. Not by choice.”
Another way the show hopes to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors is by building an empire as international as its “Wall of the World.”
“The Voice,” which originated in Holland, can boast adaptations in 145 countries. “Got Talent,” which started in England, now has 45 different versions. Even the so-so successful “Little Big Shots” expanded into Australia and the Philippines.
Darnell said “Best” will be a success only if it follows suit.
“Part of the way we make money is to start a format, hope it gets big and then sell it all over the world,” he said. “If it works in America, then you air it in France and have French judges instead of three American judges. Same thing in Spain but with three Spanish judges with a ‘wall of the world’ behind them.”
Of course, getting big in America is a big if.
“America’s Got Talent: The Champions,” which pits champs from its various international spinoffs, may have already stolen some thunder from “Best” by launching last month.
“That was a direct shot at us,” Darnell said. “That’s OK. We’re ready for the challenge.”
But will audiences want to see a new, untested show so similar in format and scope?
“I think that it’s a really interesting question, and I understand why you’re asking it,” Winston said. “I don’t know if you ask it when a new late show was launched, because there’s 10 of them. I don’t know if you ask it when there was a new soap opera that was launched, because there’s 20 of them. I don’t know if you ask it when there is a new police procedural launched.”
Uh, yeah, I do.
“Well, fair enough,” Winston said. “But I feel like once you watch it, you’ll feel the differences.”
We’ll see Sunday whether audiences feel the same way.