It's taken five seasons, but at least two shows have finally mastered the art of copying "American Idol."
FOX’s "So You Think You Can Dance" and NBC’s "America's Got Talent," another vision by "Idol"'s Simon Cowell, have been neck and neck in the ratings, drawing an average of just over 9 million viewers each. And several other talent shows have debuted or are set to debut this summer.
But back in 2003, revivals of "Dance Fever" and "Star Search" joined "American Juniors," "America’s Most Talented Kid" and "Fame" in TV’s search for a slice of the "American Idol" pie — and they all pretty much flopped in one season. So what makes this year different?
“In 2003 'American Idol' was a hit, but not a crazy hit yet. It had only just become the number one show,” said Professor Jason Mittell, who teaches film and media studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.
So it's the ever-growing success of "Idol" that's helping the spinoffs succeed. But while "Dance" and "Talent" both air on Wednesdays with results shows on Thursdays — exactly copying the "Idol" format — people in the TV biz say originality has been crucial to their success.
“Variety is the key here," Simon Cowell told BBC News regarding the success of "America's Got Talent." "You absolutely have no idea who is coming up next. In the space of 15 minutes, we saw a juggler, an acrobat, an amazing 14-year-old singer and a 68-year-old male stripper.”
Cowell is also set to do it again with "Duets," which will debut on FOX on Aug. 31. "Duets" will partner seasoned performers with celebrities otherwise unassociated with music or singing to see what ensues.
Mittell agreed with reality show guru Mark Burnett that the only shows that make it "have a different feel.”
“Some of these shows are less building off 'American Idol' and more 'Dancing with the Stars' and 'Skating with Celebrities,' he said. "Those seem to have the 'celebreality'/talent show cross and have done something new with the genre. Dance is not the same skill set as 'AI,' and skating is significantly different than dancing.”
But Mittell also thinks the successful "Idol" copycats "balance imitation and originality, with most hits having degree of familiarity."
That familiarity presents itself on "America’s Got Talent" in the form of the judging triumvirate of David Hasselhoff, Brandy and British critic Piers Morgan — a cookie-cutter model of the "American Idol" panel.
Singer/actress Brandy serves as the Paula Abdul of the bunch, who is not afraid to reject people but does it in a nurturing way.
Morgan is the obvious clone of sharp-tongued, brutally honest Cowell.
Former "Knight Rider" Hasselhoff provides some of the comic relief a la Randy Jackson, and serves as someone who has had extended industry experience, even if he has been the butt of a few jokes himself. And Regis Philbin plays the Ryan Seacrest role.
“One of the reasons people do watch ["Idol"] is to see what Simon has to say. Some of them want to see Paula reassuring the contestants. It’s that positive, American dream. But what people want is at least one judge to be a straight shooter," Mittell said.
“Dance,” which debuted in 2005 and was created by 'AI' producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller, is seeing a boom in its second season on FOX. Boasting a brand-new host this year in British model, presenter and former MTV/UK VJ Cat Deeley, the show also holds nationwide auditions.
The current talent competitions seem a throwback to '40s and '50s-era shows like "Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts" and "Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour," which debuted on radio, and even "The Gong Show" and the original "Dance Fever" from the '70s.
"America’s Got Talent" has been dubbed the modern “Gong Show,” and the popularity of dance contest shows recalls audiences' love for “Dance Fever” and other variety shows that had otherwise disappeared.
“'America’s Got Talent' is really an extension of the audition portion of 'American Idol,'” Mittell said. “Half of the people are talented, some of them are freaks, which is part of the appeal. The winners I saw were not this polished, perfect ‘Idol,’ but of a different ilk.”
But the game show boom of 2000 inspired by the also-Philbin-hosted "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" didn’t last. Will talent shows stick?
After starting with a bang last month, "America's Got Talent" is beginning to taper off. Ratings for last Wednesday night's two-hour episode were down by 24 percent from the show's average so far this season, and down one-third since its debut.
Still, the show ranked No. 1 for the night among all viewers — but trailed rival "So You Think You Can Dance" badly in the ad-friendly 18-to-49-years-old category, according to the New York Post.
Mittell thinks the shows are here to stay, but only as long as "American Idol" remains a hit.
“As long as the 'AI' brand maintains itself, it will sustain itself; the same way 'Survivor' still does,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if [the boom] runs its course.”