Eighteen years ago, CBS broadcast Super Bowl XXXV. It gave the timeslot after the game—the most coveted timeslot in television—to the premiere of Survivor Australia, the highly anticipated return of the show following the ratings-shattering Survivor Borneo finale. Survivor season two premiered with 45 million viewers; no post-Super Bowl show has come close since then.
Eighteen years later, CBS should have just aired a rerun of Survivor Australia. Or an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, which has a cast sitting in a house and ready to be broadcast to the world live. Or anything else.
There’s a completed season of The Amazing Race that has teams of Big Brother, Survivor, and Amazing Race contestants competing against each other. Why not that?
Sure, appealing directly to fans of CBS reality TV would be a much narrower audience than what they probably hoped The World’s Best would draw.
But what’s the audience for a cynical knock-off?
Imagine being a CBS executive and looking at every single show that could possibly air after the Super Bowl, and then watching this premiere of The World’s Best and thinking, This is it! This is the best we have.
Because this wasn’t the best reality television has to offer.
A copy isn’t bad, but this was a bad copy
Mike Darnell, the reality TV wizard responsible for Fox shows from Joe Millionaire to American Idol, created this format alongside another reality TV wizard, Mark Burnett, who is responsible for Survivor and the idea that reality television could be cinematic and dramatic.
At the Television Critics Association press tour last week, Darnell insisted “the whole format is completely different” from America’s Got Talent.
He was right: it felt like a cheap knock-off that won’t be confused with the original.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a knock-off of America’s Got Talent, a show that is far too self-important and bloated for its own good.
Reality TV is a robust enough genre that it can handle multiple shows of the same type. And I’ve previously been very wrong about the potential of specific knock-off to succeed.
I also want it to succeed, in the way I want all reality TV to succeed: it’s an amazing genre! And I especially want a show that has such a potentially large audience to be the best the genre has to offer.
So I went into this with hope—even though what we saw before the Super Bowl wasn’t encouraging. The marketing campaign seemed lackluster, and the absence of two of the three judges to show up at the Television Critics Association press tour suggested this just wasn’t much of a priority.
Also, I’m all for a celebration of talent from around the world, but America’s Got Talent already has that, even before it tried to ahead of CBS with its special winter season, America’s Got Talent: The Champions.
So, having international acts isn’t new.
A panel of 50 judges from around the world is new. But if you’re going to have a show that is a celebration of what the entire world has to offer, maybe don’t give three American judges the exact same weight as 50 international judges.
To go on to the second round, an act needed 75 points—with 50 possible from the international judges, and 50 possible from the average of RuPaul, Drew Barrymore, and Faith Hill’s scores. (Numeric scoring from the judges is nice, and I wish more shows would do that.)
As to the judges, James Corden introduced them as “the three best judges in American television history,” and I want them to be that: it’s RuPaul! On broadcast prime-time TV! And Drew Barrymore!
They gave us none of the grandstanding and let’s make this moment about me! that the America’s Got Talent judges are very fond of lately, which was refreshing. And they definitely had more insight than The Masked Singer’s collection of uselessness.
But I also can’t really remember anything they said or did besides RuPaul telling some kid singers, “Shantay, you stay”—on CBS!
The judges were less interesting to me than some of the Wall of the World people. The World’s Best’s best idea was having judges with expertise in the genre, and having James Corden turn to them for feedback about an act.
We can all judge the entertainment value of a performance, but it’s nice to hear detailed feedback from someone who really knows the subject matter. Yet that didn’t happen with every act.
The acts themselves were, eh, fine.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, producers emphasized that they’d found under-the-radar talent. “We have brought talent that has not been seen on television before, and we’ve dug deep to find talent that is new and exciting,” executive producer Alison Holloway said.
About halfway through the episode, a contestant with a prosthetic arm played the violin. It was an incredible performance—and the show kept cutting away from her to show the judges crying, to make sure that we knew that it was emotionally moving.
Also, the violinist, Manami, wasn’t unknown to the Internet.
That’s fine! The acts on America’s Got Talent are, I’d argue, new to most viewers. Even if they’re viral sensations, most people haven’t seen them.
Also, while there were some impressive acts, including Manami, the talent didn’t feel any newer or more exciting than an average America’s Got Talent act.
In many ways, it felt weaker. I think that’s because of how casual and flat the actual production was in its presentation of the acts. They didn’t taken advantage of the stage or the resources that this kind of show should offer.
The World’s Best is a massive missed opportunity
During the Super Bowl, CBS aired this 10-second ad for Survivor: Edge of Extinction that referenced this season’s twist with one sentence: “Survivor is about to reinvent the way the game is played.”
Those 15 seconds are more well-produced and dramatic than the entire World’s Best premiere.
CBS has such resources and reach, and owns some of reality television’s best formats. So for them to put this in front of so many potential viewers is disappointing.
Every choice that The World’s Best made seemed to dampen the excitement. The show started with James Corden introducing the judges—who were just sitting in their chairs behind a desk. The editing kept cutting between medium close-up shots, making it difficult to get a sense of the space.
When a man sang a country song, he was on stage with a pickup truck. The “Wall of the World” was basically just the set of NBC’s 1 vs. 100 meets Star Wars’ Galactic Senate.
America’s Got Talent may be over-produced, but it knows how to create spectacle, and it knows how to do set design.
As to the country singer: He was a man from Mongolia who performed in English, but doesn’t speak English. It took the “Look! That ugly person can sing!” trope to brand-new, xenophobic places (“look, that man who can’t speak English can sing!”).
We can celebrate and appreciate talent without being shocked that people who aren’t like us are talented.
The World’s Best also cynically used shock and fear to keep us tuned in: cutting for commercial mid-act, with an editing fake-out that suggested something disastrous happened. It also ended the episode on a cliffhanger: Will a man holding his breath under water be able to escape, or will he drown on national TV?
Of course we know the answer, so if that’s really the only way the production and network thought people would return to the show this Wednesday, that’s quite depressing.
Early in the episode, RuPaul asked a contestant—who was about to swallow a florescent light with a mic attached to it—“Do we have to?”
Someone should have asked that question before producing The World’s Best, or at least before putting it on after the Super Bowl.