'America's Got Talent' debuts with new judge and plenty of viewers

DAVID WHO? Howie Mandel, right, joins Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne as a judge.
DAVID WHO? Howie Mandel, right, joins Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne as a judge. (Chris Haston/nbc)
By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, June 3, 2010

He's no Simon Cowell, but last summer's most-watched TV series, "America's Got Talent," appears to have survived the loss of judge David Hasselhoff when Tuesday's fifth season debut attracted around 12 million viewers -- about a million more than the fourth season kickoff.

Taking a page from "Idol," the producers of "Talent" (who include Cowell) replaced Hasselhoff with a comic who brings an established TV following. In this case, it's comic-turned-actor-turned-game-show-host Howie Mandel.

"Idol" did the same this past season, replacing judge Paula Abdul with Ellen DeGeneres, although that show's ratings declined.

Replacing Hasselhoff is a big deal because "Talent" has become the sort of "American Idol" of summer. Its Tuesday performance show and Wednesday results show were last summer's two most-watched programs, averaging 13 million and 12 million viewers, respectively. Hasselhoff was one of the show's original judges.

It's unclear whether the Tuesday debut enjoyed a larger audience than last summer's kickoff because people tuned in to see Mandel take over for Hasselhoff or whether the talent competition enjoyed that larger crowd simply because the show debuted three weeks earlier than it had last summer.

Our money's on Mandel.

"I have been with this show since Day One," Mandel said as he made his entrance on "Talent" Tuesday night. "I have been doing it and judging it in my underpants, on the couch."

It's actually the second time a "Talent" judge has been replaced. The original token-chick judge was Brandy Norwood (a.k.a. Brandy), but she brought nothing to the table and was replaced early in the show's run by Sharon Osbourne.

Tuesday was a sort of Reality TV Perfect Storm, with four such programs debuting, including "Talent" and NBC's new weight-loss series "Losing It With Jillian," as well as ABC's returning "Wipeout" and Fox's returning "Hell's Kitchen."

"Kitchen" (6.2 million) and "Wipeout" (8.3 million) were on par with their debuts last summer. "Jillian" (6.7 million) shed way too much of her "Talent" lead-in audience. But those glass-half-full folks at NBC preferred to focus on the new show's having won its time slot among 18-to-49-year-old viewers, the demographic the network sells to advertisers.

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