Then and Now: Star Search vs. America’s Got Talent

Photo courtesy of NBC and CBS.

Photo courtesy of NBC and CBS.

Everything was better in the 90’s, right? Denim on denim (on denim), brick-sized cell phones, Crash Bandicoot, AIM Buddy Lists, and, of course, the golden age of television. Many of us might agree with that statement due to a little thing called nostalgia, which I can tell you is complex enough there’s a NU class about it, but are any of the aforementioned actually, empirically, objectively better?

This article seeks to answer at least the television question by comparing contemporary television shows with there 90’s counterparts. This is not a science, so these are just my takes on which show takes the cake each week. Maybe at the end we’ll be able to ascertain if 90’s television really was better – or if that’s just a myth like Tamagotchis being at all similar to real pets.

This week, as the title suggests, we’re comparing the decade’s premiere talent competitions: Star Search and America’s Got Talent. While some might argue that American Idol is a little more “premiere” than America’s Got Talent, I’m sure you don’t want to read another AI article and I surely don’t want to write one.

I doubt many of you have seen, or have any desire to see, Star Search. There’s minimal replay value due to the winner being known and probably forgotten for many years at this point. But looking back at it, you can really see how the reality/talent market has transformed in the past twenty years. Now we have American Idol for singing, So You Think You Can Dance for dancing, Last Comic Standing for stand-up, and countless other shows for any talent you could imagine. Back in the late 80’s and 90’s there was essentially one, you guessed it: Star Search.

Consequently the main difference I found between the two talent competition behemoths is the mundane rigidity Star Search maintained for 12 years that would probably turn off any contemporary viewer. Resident old, white guy Ed McMahon hosted the show with prepared “zingers” and faceless judges decided the fate of the two contestants in each of ten categories for singing, dancing, comedy and spokesmodel-ing (which is like combined modeling and whatever the Price is Right women do).

Star Search featured a bevy of talent, but AGT manages to showcase more unconventional talents like martial artists, performance artists, and pigs that play the piano with an extra flair that keeps you intrigued. So many shows in the past two decades have picked the low hanging fruits of singing and dancing, so new shows have to be more creative. While AGT does have “normal” contestants, the many uncommon talents make for an unpredictable and exciting show.

Further, AGT features more behind the scenes coverage of the most intriguing candidates giving more of an insight into the contestants than Star Search ever dared to do. Ed McMahon allotted a minute or two for the contestants to speak a little about their accomplishments or hometown, but nothing to the extent that AGT does on a regular basis. AGT follows certain intriguing contestants’ daily lives and practice routines and fashions them into heartwarming stories.

Perhaps higher production budgets allowed for the producers to send cameras to a person’s home, workplace and practice studio where Star Search couldn’t afford it – but regardless of motivation the behind the scenes portion adds an extra layer of intrigue that keeps viewers interested and invested. Even the extra spectacle from broadcasting the auditions adds more opportunities to both relish the contestants “making it” and more often crashing and burning. AGT, and shows like it, now add a comedic element in watching really abysmal people audition – something that was entirely excluded from earlier such programs.

It’s hard to say if the extremely profitable American Idol set the precedent for talent-based television shows causing AGT to adopt the same style and reap the benefits. I mean, AI managed to be number one in US network ratings for eight years straight. In adapting the British Pop Idol model with charismatic judges and flashy editing, the show made viewers care about the people behind the talent and keep them tuned in each week. On the other hand, the abandonment of hidden judges and lack of audience participation might just be a reflection of a 2000’s network preference for a more democratic viewing experience.

Now all these changes do not certify that AGT is inherently better than Star Search. Judging by the ridiculous amount of famous people that came out of the competition from Dave Chappelle to Alanis Morissette (for real, just check the wikipedia page), the show had talent out the wazoo. That’s actually sort of the problem. It was just a rote presentation of singing, dancing, modeling and comedy. Simple talent just won’t cut it anymore. That extra behind the scenes material is now expected for the audience to stay tuned instead of watching Celebrity Apprentice. The diversity and creativity of talents, people and presentation I think make AGT stand out as a clear winner between the two programs.

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