America's Got Talent has officially kicked off production on season 16!
PEOPLE has the first look at the season 16 judges panel, which features executive producer Simon Cowell back in his chair after a mid-season hiatus due to his electric bike accident and hospitalization in August 2020.
Sofía Vergara also returns for her second season as a judge while veteran judges Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel are back for their eighth (seasons 8-13 and 15-16) and twelfth installments (seasons 5-16), respectively.
Host Terry Crews is emceeing for another season, his third in total. (The actor, 52, also hosted seasons 1 and 2 of America's Got Talent: The Champions, for which Cowell, Klum and Mandel served as judges.)
"It's so exciting to be back, honestly it's so exciting to be anywhere. It's so exciting just to be out of the house," Mandel, 65, tells PEOPLE exclusively about filming the upcoming season.
Auditions for season 16 began on Sunday in Pasadena, California, and are filming with a limited audience in the venue due to COVID protocols.
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A year prior, in March 2020, the NBC franchise halted production during season 15 due to the onset of the COVID pandemic with a round of auditions taking place without a live audience for the first time.
Shortly after, Klum, 47, fell ill on set and didn't return to film episodes of the auditions round. Guest judge Eric Stonestreet, who starred on Modern Family with Vergara, 48, temporarily subbed in for Klum, who, at the time, tested negative for the virus.
AGT resumed production that summer after a weeks-long hiatus and became one of the first major shows to figure out how to move forward with taping amid the pandemic. Instead of their usual indoor venue, production moved to an outdoor set in Simi Valley, California, inspired by a drive-in theater right after COVID restrictions were lifted in the state. Backstage, there was regular testing, face masks/shields were implemented and producers created pods assigned to specific zones where everyone adhered to social distancing.
Then in early August, Cowell was hospitalized after an electric bike accident at his Malibu home. He broke his back and underwent a five-hour surgery, which required him to get a number of fusions and a metal rod put into his back.
Days after Cowell's hospitalization, the live shows, all of which he was absent for, showcased 44 acts performing over four weeks of quarterfinals instead of the usual schedule of 36 acts appearing over three weeks. Guest stars Kelly Clarkson and Kenan Thompson filled in on Cowell's behalf.
"I've got to be honest with you, it wasn't that bad actually breaking your back," Cowell, 61, told PEOPLE last month. "I mean it wasn't great for 3-4 weeks but after that you get through it. I had to do so much exercise now. I actually feel better than I did before the accident."
Spoken word artist Brandon Leake was crowned the winner of season 15.
Season 16 of America's Got Talent premieres June 1 on NBC.
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