The email dated April 17, 2014, began innocently enough.
“I met with Simon Cowell yesterday,” wrote Sony chief Michael Lynton to NBCUniversal boss Steve Burke.
The former “American Idol” judge — Lynton explained — “is thinking that the right thing to do” was for him to join the NBC summer hit “America’s Got Talent.” Oh, and by the way: Drop judge Howard Stern, and move the show from Radio City Music Hall to Los Angeles.
The email was hacked — another embarrassing Sony bombshell that landed on WikiLeaks — and the damage done. When Stern later announced his departure after four seasons, the tabloid press pounced, insisting he had been fired.
But beginning Tuesday night (NBC/4, 8), “AGT” has a new judge — guess who — and will originate from the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
Stern later said he quit (and hated being on the show anyway). Cowell claimed NBC had wanted him as judge years earlier. In other words, it’s just showbiz. These things happen and the show goes on. The judge swap story, meanwhile, was forgotten.
But overlooked in the Lynton email was an indication by Cowell that he could actually make “AGT” “better.” That’s not a word or suggestion usually associated with “AGT” — a frothy summer time-killer that gets no respect but lots of viewers. Going into its 11th season, this remains TV’s biggest draw after Memorial Day (12.5 million viewers) and one of the world’s most successful franchises. It’s a monster in Britain that regularly draws a third of the audience. Cowell — who’s also one of the judges on “Britain’s Got Talent” — is half-owner of the whole shebang, along with his partner Sony.
So how (or why) “better”? In Britain — where Simon is as famous as the Queen, if not quite as beloved — he’s a gentler judicial presence than his old “American Idol” self. He hugs puppies, cries occasionally, gently chides not-quite-talented children contestants who then wow him with a great performance. Cue to those tears.
“BGT” is still heaped with cheese, but it is much more slickly produced than “AGT.” The U.K. media that so lavishly covers “BGT” has suggested it recruits some acts, meaning those “spontaneous” moments when judges are “wowed” may actually be staged. (Imagine!)
Could Simon, Mel B., Howie Mandel and Heidi Klum find another Susan Boyle — “BGT’s” defining star who had her “wow” moment seven years ago? That may be “better,” but probably impossible in a world where “talent” and novelty acts — like Laughing Chewbacca Mask Lady — now crowd YouTube.
So pile on the cheese and cue the tears. The new sheriff in town has his work cut out for him.