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A reality formula that doesn't work in Canada

So, America may not have Susan Boyle, but it does have three little singing miracle workers who helped revive their comatose mother with their music. Is that enough? America's Got Talent (NBC, A, 8 and 9 p.m.) continues tonight with a rebroadcast of last week's second episode followed by a new episode featuring another batch of auditions, but the talent search faces a tough season ahead.

The show came first in U.S. ratings in the key 18-49 demographic last week. Nonetheless, the numbers for its fourth-season premiere were down 12 per cent over last year's. It did not get the "Boyle bounce" that its producers had predicted, referring to the awkward middle-aged spinster who won over a skeptical crowd with her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables on the British version of the show earlier this year. Boyle never did win the top prize, but there's a perception out there that unless it can find another story as dramatic as Boyle's, America's Got Talent is treading water.

There has been wide speculation that Boyle was something of a fix; that producer and judge Simon Cowell knew full well the woman could sing before she appeared. Indeed, he said self-importantly at the time, to guffaws from the audience and his fellow judges, that he had known the minute she stepped onstage he was going to "hear something extraordinary."

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Well, if that was a fix, last week's appearance by the Voices of Glory singers on America's Got Talent was, as the show's sob stories often are, visibly staged. These three children, who are aged 9, 13 and 16, revealed in audition interviews that they used music to hold their family together in tough times, and when the judges then asked the right questions in front of the audience, out came the whole story: They had sung to their mother in hospital during the eight months she spent in a coma after her car was struck by a drunk driver three years ago. Today, she is very much conscious and was waiting in the wings in her wheelchair, ready to hear them perform. They proceeded to sing God Bless America (beautifully, by the way,) reducing judge Sharon Osbourne, always the softie on that panel, to tears. When they were inevitably passed on to the next round, the audience conveniently took up a chant of "Bring on Mom," so she could share in the victory.

Sentiment like this might seem ideally suited to hard times. Indeed America's Got Talent 's Darwinian atmosphere harkens back to its roots both in vaudeville and the Depression-era radio talent contests. It seems to have only two modes - jeeringly dismissive or ecstatically congratulatory - as it dispatches or elevates singers, dancers, comics, acrobats, magicians and even the odd ventriloquist. Better yet for NBC, this kind of contest is very cheap to produce at a time when network television is definitely feeling the pinch: Even in these days of plummeting ad revenues, the network can scrape together the income to pay the show's $1-million grand prize with the revenue from a single commercial break, while the contestants, of course, are unpaid amateurs. Still, the retro show often feels hokey and may have joined the ranks of the reality contests too late to break into the zeitgeist the way American Idol did. Tellingly, on YouTube, the Voices of Glory's numbers look tepid beside the millions who have viewed Boyle, that instant Internet phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the show, which has an Australian version as well as the British one, has always fared better in the United States than in Canada, where it failed to crack the ranks of the top 30 programs last summer and where CTV relegates it to its secondary channel A. This may disappoint those would-be contestants who have been busily signing an online petition for a Canadian franchise, but you can just forget about a Canada's Got Talent .

Check local listings.

John Doyle returns on July 23.

Also airing

Nova's ScienceNOW (PBS, 9 p.m.) launches a new season tonight with a digest of science news that includes an item about diamonds grown in a lab. Starting with a paper-thin slice of an actual diamond that is exposed to various gases, technicians can grow artificial ones that are indistinguishable from the real thing and, conveniently, all the same size. The purpose is not to further adorn the wealthy, but rather to mass-produce for industrial uses a material that, it turns out, is a far more efficient conductor than copper.

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Vintage British comedy is the order of Tuesday evenings on Vision TV. On Bless Me Father (8 p.m.), Father Duddleswell sets out to disprove the notion the so-called Doomsday Chair jinxes those who sit in it. Meanwhile, in On the Buses (8:30), management decides the drivers and conductors must form a football team and beat some unlikely competition.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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