I was able to participate in a conference call with American Idol Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe. He had some very interesting questions asked to him and was able to share a few spoilers about the upcoming season. This is the transcript from the call and it’s very long so here is part 1. Enjoy!
Just one question, you should know that American Idol is doing extremely well in Asia, but with so many similar … around the world, what is it about the show that clicks with the worldwide viewers more than others?
Nigel: I believe it’s because of the actual Idol that comes out at the end of the day becomes a major star, like Kelly Clarkson now is not just a star here in America, she’s a star all over the world. I think people want to see the beginnings of a star, and that’s what they get with American Idol.
Paula Abdul has been in the news a lot lately, from the satellite videos to last week she was kneeling on the floor with her head on the table. She keeps saying she’s misunderstood. Is she really just an over the top theatrical personality?
Nigel: Yes, she is. She won’t like me saying that. But she is. Certainly, the kneeling on the floor was part of a whole sequence of events that day that was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, once you get in your head that she’s drunk or she’s taking drugs, neither of which she does, she certainly doesn’t do social drugs or even drink, so once you’ve got that in your head it’s very difficult. We look when we’re editing the show nowadays and say, “Hey, are people going to think she’s drunk for doing that?” We try and take that into account.
At the same time, we don’t want to stop her personality. She leads with her heart. She cares about the kids. And she wants to protect them. But she’s also an extrovert person. She’s really the only performer in the three of them. Randy Jackson, obviously, played bass guitar, but he’d just stand there with his hat pulled over his eyes and not do anything.
I know there was this whole thing about the Courtney Love, and that turned out not to be true.
Nigel: She even named me as calling her up. I don’t even know the dear lady. I think it’s very good self-publicity. “Let’s attach ourselves to American Idol, that’s doing well at the moment.”
So you guys still have the utmost confidence in Paula?
Nigel: She hasn’t called me up and asked to be a judge on, “So You Think You Can Dance,” yet.
Over the last year blogging has really become even a bigger than it had been before. I’ve been reading some blogs of some contestants about their experiences going up to Idol this far. Will contestants be allowed to blog? How do you keep an eye on that?
Nigel: Once they’re in the top 24 and the top 12, they will not be allowed to blog. We’ll put a screen up to explain that they are involved in the show, and they can no longer blog until later.
Can you explain the reasoning for that?
Nigel: We don’t want anything slipping out. If we’ve got major stars coming on that we want to do a big publicity thing with. “Hey, Michael Jackson is coming to American Idol this week,” then I’ve got to leave that up to Fox publicity to put out there, not have it slip out with somebody telling their Mom that Michael Jackson is coming.
This is also the first season of American Idol where YouTube is such a huge phenomenon, are you guys going to monitor YouTube and not allow them to post clips from the show? Or are you going to take advantage of it and use it as the publicity tool that it can be?”
Nigel: That’s up to Fox. I think there are things going on at the moment with NBC and other stations where they’re saying to YouTube, “Hey, this is copyright.” At some point, that is going to come into effect. I think that’s a far bigger question than the executive producer of American Idol can answer.
I was wondering the logistics of next week’s episodes, will Tuesday’s episode be cutting it down from 172 to 40, and then Wednesday’s episode will be that episode where you have the contestants walk down the long corridors?
Nigel: That’s exactly right. We go from everyone is invited to Hollywood down to the 40, and then they get transferred into three rooms.
Usually you put that out to over two episodes, the 172 to 40, and that usually gets spread out over two, how come you cut it to one episode?
Nigel: There wasn’t that much that occurred in Hollywood that warranted two episodes. We normally stretch it out too far. Because this year’s auditions were so strong, I wanted to introduce, last night, to America, some of the contestants that are going to Hollywood. They’re very strong, and it’s far better that we look at the good parts, as well as the fun and the silliness of Idol, and try and introduce the characters to people that are going to be carrying on in the competition.
Given the history of the show, and now everybody is familiar, obviously, with the show, do you find that the final 24 are more sophisticated in knowing what they have to do to win the judge’s approval?
Nigel: I think the thousands that come nowadays, Michael, are more sophisticated. But, certainly, as we go down, they know they shouldn’t screw up their lyrics. There is one young lady in Hollywood who I would have said would have been in the top five this year that got cut purely and simply because she couldn’t remember her lyrics in a group. She just “Ma, Ma, Ma,” for the whole of the song. It broke my heart. But they have to have reasons to cut you, and that was the reason that this young lady will disappear off the show.
It’s sad, but that’s what a competition is. You’ve got to work every single day, and everyone that comes nowadays to Hollywood knows there’s no get out here.
I wanted to ask you a little bit, I’m on my way to get Grammy credentials, and even as we speak, and I’m wondering if you have any kind of comments or thoughts on the fact that the Grammy’s are kind of encroaching on the Idol craze a little bit, and why you think they would use an Idol-esk addition to the Grammy’s.
Nigel: It’s not just the Grammy’s; everybody would love the success that we’re enjoying at this moment in time with American Idol. If you can, in any way, use the concept, then if I was running the Grammy’s, I, too, would have used who’s going to sing with Justin Timberlake. In fact, I think one of the girls that is up to singing with Justin Timberlake has auditioned this year with American Idol.
It’s just one of those things you get used to in the business. When the next huge success comes along, whatever it might be, I’m sure we’ll all be thinking, “How can we feed off of that?” We are a very shark-driven society here. We want to be part of, and there’s a feeding fest on every success that comes on television.
But do you think that it has anything to do with the Grammy ratings, because certainly you’ve been killing in the ratings?
Nigel: The Grammy’s have been pretty successful over the last couple of years. I think they’ve become very sensible. It got to the point where it was just an awards ceremony about two or three years ago that I remember, and this is my personal opinion you understand. The Oscar’s, the Emmy’s, and the Grammy’s got to realize that it can’t just be a question of handing over an award, that’s very boring. I think the Grammy’s took full advantage of that and started putting together super groups. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Grammy’s over the last couple of years because it puts together huge stars that we no longer always see. In a society of music nowadays that is very narrow and neat of what comes across on the radio, it’s great to see it opening up at the Grammy’s.
We’re doing pretty well. We’ve been hearing a lot of rumors about contestants who got golden tickets but have been booted because of arrest records. … the sugar in the gas tank, Akron Watson in the pot bust. I guess what I’d like to know is what’s going on, and are more contestants hiding records from Idol these days instead of just fessing up and saying, “Here’s what happened in my past.”
Nigel: I’m going to be pretty quiet on both of those questions really. Number one, we don’t get involved, as the producers of the show, in the background checks. That goes out to a private company and Fox. We are informed at the end of the day, “You can’t invite this person, that person, or this person.” And we don’t ask why. To be frank, we’re not interested.
If Fox believes that it will damage the show, or damage Fox, or damage the production, then it’s best that they just don’t come along. With the checks that Fox do, I think you can only do so much. Every season we get something in smoking gun because somebody gets through the net, and their so-called friends or family will call up smoking gun, and it’s a lot easier to find out about people when people want to tell you about it, rather than you going and doing searches.
The fact is, we do do background checks. I think it’s very essential. We’re putting these kids together in a very close environment, and we’re working them very hard, and it’s essential that we know that we’ve got the right people together. So Fox gets along with this private security firm. After that, I can’t give you any other information because I don’t want to know.
But sometimes those contestants are featured on the show and you like to see their picture behind bars. So, in other words, sometimes that stuff is integrated.
Nigel: If that occurs, don’t forget that was occurring while we were doing the show. So if somebody gets busted while we’re doing the show, then we won’t ignore it, especially if we can put it in the television show.
You talked about wanting to put more of the good auditions on television, introduce the characters we’ll follow. Why don’t we see more of the 172 who made it through to Hollywood?
Nigel: There just isn’t time. If you just do the math for yourself, just do the math of what the show would be, because you’ve obviously got to have comments, we’ve got to show you what they’re doing, and the stress and trying to understand the stress, so it’s not just a complete series of people singing, and multiply it by 172. And most of the time the people that do come are lost on the first day. A hell of a lot this season lost on the first day, and it’s boring, to be frank. At this point we’ve got to almost follow the people that we know, that we care about, and are going through to the rest of the series, because otherwise we’re just investing in people we’re never going to see again.
How do you make your choices on the contestants you’re going to film and profile, start showing their back stories? What takes someone from humdrum to interesting, worthy of being filmed and profiled more extensively in the beginning?
Nigel: Backgrounds, where they come from, their stories, their human interest, what we believe our viewers will enjoy seeing, what makes you care. Our job, we believe, is to stimulate an audience that sits down to watch a little box in the corner of the room. If we can make them angry, if we can make them cry, if we can make them happy, if we can stimulate any emotion in them then we’re doing our job. However we do that, sometimes we overstep the mark with getting them angry. Sometimes I believe we overstep the mark in making them cry.
But if it affects me and if I get emotional, I think that’s going to transfer into the public. If they care, then they will continue to watch the series. And, more importantly, they will pick up a telephone and vote for the person that they like. This isn’t just a voyeuristic program, it’s an interactive program, and we ask you to pick up a telephone and give a crap.
I just wanted to ask really quickly one more question about the Akron Watson situation. What was the thought process in showing so much of him the other night on TV when, obviously, he’s not being asked to continue?
Nigel: Being asked to continue is Hollywood, and it’s got nothing to do with his story and his performance. When he came along and auditioned, we treated him like everybody else. I’m not privy to what the guy’s done for the rest of his life. We certainly couldn’t do that over 100,000 contestants that come along. We treat everybody the same, or attempt to, and he was part of that process. Whether he’s invited back or not by Fox does not concern me regarding what he did at that audition. If he’d have murdered somebody we would have thought twice, and if the mother would come forward and say, “But he murdered my son, how could you put him on television?” Then we would certainly attempt to stop him being on television. But as far as I’m concerned we’ve just been asked not to bring him back to Hollywood.
Also, I just wanted to check to see if you have a favorite already, just a personal favorite in this competition?
Nigel: My favorite was cut out.
Really? Interesting. Do you have any other front runners?
Nigel: I think this is going to be a great season where there isn’t a Kelly Pickler, a Carrie Underwood, or a Clay Aiken, that you know is going to really steal everybody’s votes. This season I think we’ve got a lot of excellent singers. I don’t think I’m going to be ashamed of anybody that gets up there and sings this season. But they are going to have to grow rather in the vane of, and I don’t know if you remember Vonzell, who just came from the back and like a good horse, just steamed to the front and came third at the end of the day. Kelly Clarkson herself, nobody thought Kelly Clarkson was going to get anywhere when the series started. Slowly she just moved forward and won by a majority at the end.
People often complain a little bit because they see a lot of the same themes over and over when it gets into the top 12. I’m wondering, since American Idol encourages viewers to be interactive by voting for their favorite contestants, do you ever see it in the future where the viewers will get to help pick the themes that the contestants are performing in the top 12?
Nigel: To be frank with you, no, otherwise I don’t think we’d have producers on shows, we’d just throw it open and let everyone decide what was going to happen. I’m afraid that’s my job. I get paid a lot of money for that, and I don’t want to give it up.
One, you mentioned that your favorite was cut out, didn’t know if you could name it. And then, also, since we’ve talked about the Courtney Love rumor, we’ve heard a recent one about there being a Nirvana week. I just wanted you to talk about that because that sounds like a Saturday Night …
Nigel: I think that’s a great idea. Let’s take last season, for instance, because we know the contestants on that. Kelly Pickler sings Nirvana. Chicken Little sings Kurt Cobain. Please. Absolutely not. It’s further rubbish.
I can’t name my favorite. It is a girl; I’ve got to be honest with you. Hopefully, she’ll come back next year. I certainly don’t want to compromise her with anybody else if she comes back in further years. “Wasn’t that Nigel’s favorite? If she gets through I’ll be she gets through because she’s Nigel’s favorite.” So I wouldn’t do that. I’ll only talk about my favorites after they’ve been through American Idol and come out the other side. I can tell you Chris Daughtry was my favorite from last year.
What I want to ask you is your thoughts on how the face of American Idol has changed? We know that it has changed for the contestants. More and more each year we’re seeing that contestants are going through and having more of a life than winning the first, the top prize. I’d like some more of your thoughts on how it’s becoming a viable marketing tool for well-established artists?
Nigel: I think what’s happened, and we’ve seen it over the last couple of years, because we do so many different genres of music, the kids are being opened up to all of the brilliant American songwriters, even going back to Irving Berlin. They are changing their musical tastes somewhat. Consequently, a lot of artists now are releasing the 60s, the 70s, the Great American songbook, and having big hits with them.
I think there are a few great pop artists, and I choose my words well here by saying pop artists, but Gwen Stefani for me is a great pop artist. We can talk about the Beatles, and we can talk about madness, and ride the way through the history of pop music, and kids start to understand what we’re talking about, and actually appreciate a good pop song, as well as listening to all of the hip hop and everything else that’s pumped out in the stations nowadays.
So I think there’s an influence on our music and record companies with attempting to open up music. I still think radio here is narrow and niche. That’s why so many artists want to come on American Idol. And why, thank goodness, we have such brilliant people as Prince appearing on our finale, because it is a vehicle where you can show off your music and no longer just a cheesy talent competition on television.
[Continued in Part 2]