CBS spared no expense — or hyperbole — to create and launch its new reality competition series “The World’s Best.” Debuting in the highly coveted post-Super Bowl timeslot, the variety show with a global twist is positioned to make a huge splash with viewers. Or at least that’s the hope, after CBS has dropped massive amounts of money on crafting the colossal set and attracting host James Corden and big-name talent for its judges, including Hollywood royalty Drew Barrymore, iconic drag queen and TV personality RuPaul Charles, and country megastar Faith Hill.
“A lot of money goes into something like that. You can see it on the screen. This is not a cheap show,” said executive producer Mike Darnell at the Television Critics Association preview for the show on Wednesday. “CBS, to their credit, really stepped up to make it big. CBS has really taken a big swing with us. They gave us the Super Bowl. In my entire career, 20-plus years, I’ve never had a Super Bowl.”
Although Darnell would not divulge exact figures, it’s clear that CBS is betting big on the show. Besides its plum premiere placement, the show’s second episode will air a few days later on Wednesday, Feb. 6 from 8-10 p.m. ET, putting it in direct competition with Fox’s new hit reality series “The Masked Singer.”
While ratings and ad dollars are incentive enough for CBS to promote a show, “The World’s Best” promises an extra reason to champion it: franchise. Unlike shows like “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “The Voice,” or even “The Masked Singer” — which are all based on franchises originating from Europe and Asia — CBS’ new show is a completely original American format Darnell dreamed up himself. The reality TV king noticed that while many singing competitions have emerged, “America’s Got Talent” stands alone in the variety competition field. He was determined to find a compelling twist on the format.
“For ‘American Idol,” along came ‘The Voice.’ And what did ‘The Voice’ do? ‘The Voice’ took a singing contest and added a game show element, which was the spinning chairs,” he said. “So when I was at Fox, I kept thinking there has to be room for one more variety show. Once I got over to Warner Bros., we started to think about what could we do? What was our spinning chairs?”
Darnell hit upon something called the Wall of the World, where approximately 50 international judges from 38 regions sit in “pods” reaching the ceiling of a massive set. As each foreign judge weighs in, their pod will light up with each “yes” vote, hopefully creating a living wall of light in support of the performer or act.
Hitting upon the right formula attractive to other countries is key. The “Idols” and “Got Talent” franchises are ubiquitous, boasting local versions in over 46 regions and 58 countries, respectively.
“This will be our prove-out. If it works in America, then hopefully, you sell it to France and Spain. And the way it would work is in France, instead of three American judges, they’d have three French judges. Behind them would be people from around the world. Same thing in Spain. Three Spanish judges and behind them, the Wall of the World.”
The global flavor of “The World’s Best” is already apparent in the Wall of the World, but the show features a wide array of talent from around the globe as well. From ballerinas and singers to magicians and escape artists, any act is considered as long as they are the best at what they do. A male singer with wide vocal range is great; singer Dimash Kudaibergen, with his six-octave range, is considered the best. Also, a dog who can hypnotize humans with a glance is also the best at that particularly niche skill. All are competing for a million-dollar prize.
“You have to try to find really new stuff and that’s by talking to your contacts, seeing who people are talking about in their own countries. What are the local papers saying about people in a part of China that we’ve never gone to?” said executive producer Alison Holloway. “It takes an enormous amount of research, and that’s what our guys are good at — not just sitting by a computer, staring at a laptop, and seeing what the latest viral thing is. We want to get something that’s a little different.”
Adding to the international appeal is host James Corden, the Brit who’s already charmed American audiences with his late-night talk show. Beyond a monologue and interviews, “Late Late Show” features variety segments such as “Crosswalk: The Musical” and “Carpool Karaoke,” which spun off into its own series for Apple Music. Executive producer Ben Winston believes that Corden’s particular talents hail from a history of British hosts who actively participate on their shows, instead of just acting as a mere interviewer or emcee.
Winston said, “When James sees 20 Shaolin monks who are unbelievable at what they do, he doesn’t go, ‘So when did you learn that you could break wood over your head?’ Instead, he’s like, ‘Can I roll across the stage and you jump up [over me]?’ It’s about going, ‘How much fun can we have with the tools that we’ve been given?’ I think that comes from British variety and old-school Vaudeville — the Palladium Sunday night shows.”
The main three American judges are also known worldwide. RuPaul Charles of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is the most commercially successful drag queen in America and landed on the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world in 2017. Drew Barrymore has entertainment in her blood; she’s the third generation of the Barrymore acting family, produces films and TV shows, and currently stars on Netflix’s comedy “Santa Clarita Diet.” Finally, Faith Hill is one of the most successful country artists of all time and has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. Each of them brings their own loyal following, in addition to their unique judging personalities.
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“Faith adds a real care and love, but she’s also quite forceful. She has a wonderful polite manner about her but she doesn’t [mince] her words,” said Winston. “Ru is just a wonderful talent that is both funny and entertaining and nails it on the head. And Drew gives us this wonderful, warm, fun aspect to her comments.”
Without an acerbic Simon Cowell-type judge in sight, “The World’s Best” is also in the business of selling positivity. The show eschews featuring acts by clueless or talentless hacks, such as those seen in the audition rounds of “American Idol,” to be held up for mockery. Instead, each act is already successful in its own right.
“People have had enough of the meanness. I know that in the past two years if something comes on television or a movie where I could sense people are going to be mean to one another, I cannot watch it,” said Charles. “There is so much of that going on in the world right now. Am I living in a pink cloud? Perhaps. But I’m 58 years old. I’ve seen a lot of nasty stuff. I don’t want any more. Not right now. Not by choice. [This] show really reflects the global vision that we all grew up thinking that the 21st century would be.”
Embodying global harmony seems like a hefty weight for a talent competition show, but like Atlas himself, CBS seems to have shouldered this burden and more. It doesn’t just need to appeal internationally; it appears to have to live up to its own name in the reality field.
“It’s a mighty title,” Holloway said. “It’s given us a few sleepless nights, having a title that says ‘The World’s Best,’ but it’s also spurred us as producers.”
Darnell added, “It better be [successful], because there was a lot of investment made by everybody involved with time, energy, and money. We’re crossing our fingers that this is going to be a franchise for many years to come for CBS. I think we’ve got the next new spin on a variety show, and I think it’s going to work.”
Here’s a sneak peek of “The World’s Best” in action:
”The World’s Best” premieres on Sunday, Feb. 3 after the Super Bowl. Its second episode airs Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
Additional reporting by Steve Greene.