It was revealed on November 22 that Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union would not be returning for season 15 of Americas Got Talent. The news came as a surprise after the judges had just finished their first season when NBC declined to exercise an option to renew their contracts for an additional year. It’s not exactly clear why Julianne Hough was cut from the show but may have been influenced by a variety of factors including workplace culture, ratings, and the show’s habit of switching out judges to keep things fresh.
According to an article from Variety, Hough’s departure may have something to do with tensions that arose on the set of AGT. Variety reported that Hough and Union “received excessive notes on their physical appearance.” And that Hough dealt with, “consistent criticism on hair, makeup and wardrobe, which impacted her morale and led to tensions.”
Another factor could be the decline in ratings from season 13 to 14. Viewers for the season 14 finale were down 29% from 2018 according to Good Housekeeping.
NBC production company Fremantle and judge Simon Cowell’s entertainment company Syco gave a joint statement to USA Today and said AGT remains “committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture. … We are working with Ms. Union through her representatives to hear more about her concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps may be appropriate.”
Simon Cowell said the Hough being let go had nothing to do with any outside factors. “It wasn’t like it wasn’t working,” Cowell told USA TODAY back in May. “Everyone who’s been on the show over the years, judge or host, has done a brilliant job. It’s just one of those shows where I think occasionally they just like to rotate the panel.”
Right after she was let go, Hough told People.com that she had a “wonderful time on ‘America’s Got Talent’, I loved working with the cast, crew and producers. I am happy to continue my working relationship with NBC,” adding, “I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
The two stars remained tight-lipped on the issue until the Variety article came out. The article forced both Hough and Union to comment publicly on the situation. Union responded to the story on Twitter and thanking her friends and family for getting her “up off the ground”. She also posted a photo on Instagram with her husband Dwyane Wade that seems to reference the recent controversy with the caption “Lord, you KNOW I’m tryin… whew.”
Dwayne Wade took a more direct approach on social media, calling out AGT and the show producers directly in a series of tweets. “‘Men lie, Women lie, numbers don’t’ Over this past year I’ve been approached by many people saying that my wife @itsgabrielleu is the main reason they’ve started watching #AGT or that they love her insight and sincerity on the show,” he wrote. “So when I got the news that my wife was being fired—my first question was obviously why!? I am still waiting on a good answer to that question. But if anyone knows @itsgabrielleu or have heard of her you know she’s an advocate for our community and culture.”
Julianne Hough supported her fellow ex-judge on the issue in an interview with People Now when she was asked how she felt about the situation. “I commend Gabrielle for speaking her truth and starting a conversation,” said the Dancing With The Stars judge, who is starring in Holidays With The Houghs with her brother Derek on NBC. “I’m also really proud of NBC as well for showing up and starting a narrative, and that’s what’s going to change the workplace and the paradigm that we’ve been working in for many, many years, and it’s shifting, and I think that’s really, really exciting.”
Union said on Twitter that she had a “productive” 5-hour meeting with show producers and that it might lead to “real change.”
Hough is also appearing on NBC’s Christmas in Rockefeller Center. “There [are] so many projects that I’m doing with NBC that I’m really excited about,” she told People Now. “There [are] lots of things out of our control, and so as long as I stay authentic in who I am and everybody else involved also stays connected to who they are, that’s all that matters, and not trying to please or have a perception of what you think people want to hear, and just staying true.”
The hosts then ask Hough how she felt about the atmosphere on set at AGT. “I’m good.” She says. “I know who I am, and as egocentric as this may sound, I totally and utterly love myself. And so I choose to, with whatever I do, just take all the lessons that I’ve learned and add them to my vocabulary and move forward.”
Union Was Allegedly Upset over Culturally and Racially Insensitive Jokes on the Set of AGT
Gabrielle Union complained to producers about a racially insensitive joke on the set of AGT, according to Variety.
Sources also shared a related incident that occurred during another audition taping this season, where Union and other staffers expressed concerns over a white male performer crossing a line in portraying people of color. The contestant’s gimmick involved rapid costume changes inside a larger garment, while impersonating a multitude of famous singers. In one such quick change, the contestant emerged in the guise of Beyoncé Knowles. His hands appeared as black, meant to be a character accent, three witnesses to the audition said.
Union immediately recommended to a segment producer and an executive producer that the contestant be removed from the lineup, sources said, adding that the producers disagreed and used a familiar refrain heard on the “AGT” set: “We’ll take it out later.”
Union pressed the issue with producers and the performer’s live audition was eventually removed. She also took issue with a joke Jay Leno made in a separate incident. Variety reported that “Leno made a crack about a painting on display in a hallway of Simon Cowell, the show’s executive producer and judge, surrounded by his dogs. Leno joked that the pets looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
Sources told Variety that some individuals in the cast and crew found the joke offensive. Union “urged producers to report the joke to human resources at NBC,” but, “several insiders said it was never escalated to that department.” The Leno joke was removed from the August 6 episode.
AGT Ratings Declined During Hough & Union’s Season While Social Media Engagement Increased
AGT’s ratings have declined steadily for the past three years and did so again when Union and Hough were on the show. This year’s AGT finale drew 10 million viewers, which was the third most-watched episode in the show’s 14 seasons, but also 3 million less than the season 13 finale. The show still led the Wednesday night time slot with a 1.5 rating in the key 18-49 demographic, according to Variety.
Viewers may be down but NBC’s social media impressions and following went up substantially due to Union’s presence. According to Variety, “The 18-episode season that wrapped in September generated 25 million social media impressions, approximately half of which engaged directly with Union, according to figures from Nielsen Social, effectively making her the most popular judge.”
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