LOS ANGELES (AP) - Summertime is for cutting yourself some slack, whether that means reading potboilers poolside or testing the limits of fried food - Kool-Aid Balls anyone? - at county fairs.
Television has its own seasonal playlist, mostly dominated by reality shows and topped by "America's Got Talent," the NBC contest that takes an expansive view of achievement.
Yes, angelic-voiced Jackie Evancho, 11, was a star last season on "AGT" (the efficient nickname used by its producers and NBC). But the show, airing Tuesdays and Wednesdays and hosted by Nick Cannon, welcomes much more than elegant child sopranos.
There's a wide variety of singers as well as dancers, the stuff of other TV contests. Then add contortionists, impressionists, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists and "danger acts," the injury-defying sort that push "AGT" onto vaudeville turf.
"For me, each year it's about giving the audience acts that others don't feature. We want different singers than "American Idol' and "X Factor,"' said the show's executive producer, Cecile Frot-Coutaz. "And we want young, cool variety acts that people talk about."
The attempts to be different aren't always pretty.
"Whether it's "AGT' or not, it's amazing what somebody will do to garner fame," said Howie Mandel, who judges the show with Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan. "It's probably more apparent in our audition rounds where it goes everywhere from brilliance to insanity."
This season, the mix has included a talking bird act, male pole dancer, BMX stunt team and a man who played a game of elimination by throwing himself on a series of boxes. One of them held a knife. Contestants who successfully tried out on YouTube, one of the "AGT" audition options, include preteen singing group Avery and the Calico Hearts, juggler Charles Peachock and the West Springfield Dance Team, all performing on this week's wild-card competition.
Presenting a jumble of entertainment is vintage show business but a TV rarity these days: "We're the only show that offers this," Mandel said.
"America's Got Talent" is hitting a ratings high in its sixth year, both among total viewers and advertiser-favored young adults, according to Nielsen Co. The Tuesday episodes are up 22 percent compared to last year, drawing an audience of 14.6 million, while Wednesdays are averaging 12 million, a 12 percent increase over 2010.
As with other TV vocal contests that offer established singers a promotional platform, "AGT" attracts a fair share of pop stars. Past performers include Stevie Nicks, Jason Derulo and Maroon 5, with Colbie Caillat appearing on Wednesday's show.
High-brow types inclined to complain about its cultural impact might consider this: A concert film that includes Evancho is being used to help raise funds for PBS stations, which air the "Masterpiece" and "Nova" series and other counterpoints to "America's Got Talent."
Morgan puts the NBC show in the context of his native Britain's pop culture, recalling offbeat summer variety shows held by seaside towns and dubbed "End of the Pier."
"It reminds me of "AGT': You never know what's going to happen," said Morgan, who is also a CNN host.
That element of surprise extends to the judges, particularly Morgan and Mandel, who engage in regular on-screen sparring. They could be following the model that Simon Cowell, creator of "AGT" and the original "Britain's Got Talent," built with Paula Abdul on "American Idol." But unlike Cowell and Abdul, who are reuniting as judges on Cowell's "The X Factor" and admit to a mutual fondness, Morgan and Madel seem to genuinely irritate each other.
When Mandel joined the series last year and showed his fondness for silly acts, he said, Morgan started calling him "annoying, a half-wit," Mandel recalled. "Now he's not lying. I will do anything to annoy him."
Responds Morgan: "He does annoy the hell out of me. He's as annoying off-screen as on-screen."
(Morgan has other off-screen issues. His past as a London tabloid editor has put him in the spotlight of the U.K. scandal centered on Rupert Murdoch's News of the World. Morgan, who briefly edited the paper before moving to the rival Daily Mirror, has denied any involvement or knowledge of illegal phone hacking.)
Osbourne is no shrinking violet but keeps her focus on the contestants. After all, she says, she and her rock-star husband were "AGT" fans before she became a judge.
"The first season of the show, Ozzy and I were totally addicted to it. We were doing Ozzfest (the music tour) and we'd record it and watch it traveling," she said. "It was just so different. It was funny, it was exciting and we really got addicted to it."
The semifinals start Aug. 23, and Osbourne would like to see one of the more offbeat acts eventually take the $1 million prize. "If a singer wins we're like every other talent show on TV," Osbourne said.
Not yet. The season-two winner, ventriloquist Terry Fator of Dallas, signed a five-year, $100 million dollar Las Vegas headliner deal. And a finalist from last year, Recycled Percussion, a band that uses a hodgepodge of buckets and other noise-making tools, signed its own Vegas casino show deal .
NBC is owned by Comcast Corp.