Lessons in Scale From ‘America’s Got Talent’

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DM CONFIDENTIAL – On multiple occasions in the past, we have admitted our prediction for consuming more TV than the average person in our industry does. Then again, given that so many people seem to have abandoned any form of live television, watching more than they do requires very little. Several shows occupy season recording status on the DVR, and given the mix on television today, it would come as no surprise to learn that one of them falls into the reality game show genre.

Contestants in our drug of choice trade in the wilderness for a few moments on stage. Calling this show anything but a talent show would describe it inaccurately, but labeling it just a talent show seems equally inappropriate.

For those who have not watched “America’s Got Talent,” the premise follows a straightforward formula. The show consists of auditions held at various venues across the United States. Judges vote to send auditions to the next “round” of voting. The second round narrows the contests down to a more manageable group of 48.

From there until a victor gets crowned, you and I, the texting (AT&T only) and phone-wielding public control the voting, for the most part, instead of the hired celebrity hands: Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne, and Piers Morgan. The bickering and sibling enmity between Mr. Mandel and Mr. Morgan are frequently more entertaining than acts which brings out the best and worst in the two of them.

The winner of America’s Got Talent receives a cash prize and the “chance to headline a show in Las Vegas.” One of the shows’ success stories does just that, and even one of its finalists has gone on to an extraordinary solo career… at the age of 11.

Both of which help explain the appeal of the show. It’s curation at its finest. It doesn’t take a melting pot of people and put them in unnatural scenarios a la “Big Brother” or “Survivor.” Instead, it epitomizes the American Dream of getting discovered, a talentocracy where true talent can shine regardless of race, age, education, or origin.

And for those times when the show doesn’t take the necessary but unfortunate moments to highlight how deluded and under-talented some are, it succeeds in making viewers both hopeful and proud.

As AGT, the nickname the show has given to itself, looks to balance the notion between a Vegas act, i.e. a presumably commercial act, and acts with talent but not enough commercial viability, it has given us a way to understand a term oft used in the Internet marketing and ad technology arenas, but one not so common in the broader world — scale.

Were the judges to talk about scale instead of a headlining act, it would turn into a very different show. A Vegas show can become a big enterprise, just as it can help turn a big act into an icon. Cirque de Soleil is the classic example. They became famous in Vegas, so much now that almost every casino has a Cirque show of its own. And it’s in analyzing the success of Cirque that we can better understand what would separate a good act from a scalable act.

Scalable acts naturally include singers. You can bottle up a singer and have their music played and consumed asynchronously. A magic act on the other hand, has a much harder time scaling. It can become a great show, but the performer often makes it great.

You remember a magician. The act of magic is fairly commoditized, whereas how a personality performs it, is not. But, you can’t make a single of magic and so a good show remains often in a location or on occasion on television as a variant of its original show.

That is why it’s often interesting to look at a show like “America’s Got Talent” through the lens of scale and true commercialization as the definition of headlining. When we do that, we also see why some acts may not win the show, but they can become big businesses. They are repeatable, unique, and they do not rely on one individual.

Using the definition of repeatable, unique, and does not rely on a known face, this season of “America’s Got Talent” has a show which could explain scale better than any other, the Silhouettes. The show is innovative. As the name might imply, their entire act takes place behind a screen. Light from behind the screen casts shadows of the performers onto the screen. We see their silhouettes. They move, dance, and pose creating a visual experience different from almost anything else out there.

And best of all, every performer is ultimately replaceable. They have no face time. They have shadow time. The experience relies on their skill and the choreography, but it does not rely on the extraordinary talents of a handful of people.

This is exactly what makes Cirque so powerful. Its performances are in many ways a combination of many individual acts that pass through “America’s Got Talent” –exciting, dangerous, and fun. But, these individual acts could not carry an entire show. To borrow another term so often used in the world of technology today, they are features not products.

The Silhouettes can scale much like Cirque has. You need talented performers, but unfortunately, the world still turns out more talented dancers, gymnasts, etc. than shows like Cirque have. With Silhouettes, you can have a Silhouettes performance happening multiple times a day in multiple cities — think Stomp and Blue Man Group in addition to Cirque.

They scale. They can be replicated without any loss of infidelity. It’s why, even if they do not win “America’s Got Talent,” the creator of the group will still win, and chances are, that their act will become the most enduring.

Cross-published at DM Confidential’s blog.

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