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'American Idol' producer Nigel Lythgoe: Keith Urban has argued with both Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj!


By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 01/09/2013 

American Idol's upcoming twelfth season, which will premiere on Wednesday, January 16 at 8PM ET/PT, will feature a new judging panel, a new semifinals format and a solid Top 10 finalists that won't have any "Wild Card" additions.

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During a Wednesday conference call with reporters, American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe discussed what viewers can expect to see this new season -- including audition changes; how he sized up Keith Urban as a new judge in comparison to Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Randy Jackson; and whether he thought a girl has any chance to win the competition this time around considering Idol's track record of male winners.

Below is the first half of Nigel's call. Check back with Reality TV World soon for the concluding portion.

Were there any changes or anything different viewers can expect to see this season?

Nigel Lythgoe: We've done quite a little interesting thing with the auditions and the fact that American Idol has always gone out to the cities in mass, so we've taken over huge football stadiums and bring it right down.

We've actually taken a bus, an American Idol bus, out to little towns this year and with a producer onboard, who has brought kids into the audition -- kids that wouldn't necessarily be either close enough to one of the cities we were at or even have the financial means to get to one of the big cities. So that introduced new talent to us, I must say.

And plus, we did this thing called "I nominate," which was friends and family who thought that the person they were nominating had a great voice but were a little too nervous to come along to audition.

And Randy Jackson actually went out, and we did some hidden camera stuff, and shocked them and surprised them and then gave them a number -- an audition number -- so that they actually skipped the lines and everything and came straight in to see the judges. Randy had greeted them.

So that was quite interesting and just a little something different for the audition process. And also, I guess in Hollywood Week, we changed that up. For the first time ever in Hollywood Week, we split the weeks up and gave a week to the boys and then a week to the girls, which really gave us an awful lot more focus on our talent this year and allowed us to see the wood for the trees, if you will.

And we're going to continue to do that during the Vegas Rounds as well up until the point when we get to our Top 10. It just gives us a little more insight into who the talent is. You're not mixing it up all the time, you know?

Do you have any mentors or guest judges in mind for this season already?

Nigel Lythgoe: No, we're not having any judges. We've got enough with the four that we've got, thank you very much. (Laughs) But no, nothing about mentors this season at all. Jimmy Iovine is coming back and I do want to go back -- we did it, not last year but the year before, where we actually used record producers to help the kids out.

I want to do that again this year and try and give them the same journey that they would've had if they [didn't have] this competition but [rather] moved right into the music business. The more I can align it to the music business, the stronger it's going to be for them and their journey.

And as we've seen with Phil Phillips coming out the other side, he's one of the few artists that sold that many records last year -- probably only him and Adele did that well.

With so many similar reality singing competitions on the air, why do you think American Idol is the only one producing bonafide stars?

Nigel Lythgoe: (Laughs) Well in fairness, it's right to say that they really haven't been on the air that long yet to qualify as "against American Idol." I do think that other shows tend to concentrate a little more on maybe gimmicks, maybe on their judges a little too much. I say that having just experienced two months of talking about our new judges.

But hopefully the programs themselves, when you see them, will show you that we're still focusing on the contestants. Also, the amount of votes that people vote and get involved with, they want to see them successful after the show as well once you're invested in somebody. Plus, you have to say that Phillip Phillips' song "Home" was just tremendous.

So he was very lucky in having a great song to come out with. Scotty McCreery, again, very good in that genre and people loved him. So we've had success and we want to continue having success.

The upcoming season is going to feature a different semifinals round than last season in that the Vegas Round will be part of it and there will essentially be four more performance shows in which the judges will eliminate five hopefuls after each show. And then after America votes to narrow the 20 semifinalists down to the Top 10 finalists, there will apparently be no "Wild Card" picks from the judges this time around. So could you talk a little bit about those new changes and why they were implemented?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well, personally, (laughs) I've never liked Top 11 or a Top 12 or a Top 13. It was always created in order to fill the transmission times that Fox wanted. So we created Top 13 and Top 12 and give them a "Wild Card" here and let's bring somebody back -- it's very plain and simple in truth.

And as we've always sort of done with So You Think You Can Dance, there's your Top 10. It's a knockout competition. That simple. And we've always attempted to do that, but we've never found a way to do it with everything that's been asked of us. And this year, we have.

You guys have recently mentioned that it's a girl's season to lose once again, which is something that's been said the past couple years. What do you think the female contestants need to do to get the votes to make it through all the way to the end during the live shows this season?

Nigel Lythgoe: What they've always had to do, which is kept to the vote. It isn't always about the voice. It is about charisma. It is about personality. It is about attracting an audience and doing that week on week. It's that. If there was an absolute formula to stick to in order to win American Idol, we'd have probably found it by now, and I'm sure one of the production companies would be selling it. But we haven't.

It's really what grabs you. Does the story grab you? Does the song of the week grab you?... This year, there's more strength in the talent, I think, of the girls. That is not to say that one of the boys cannot sneak in, because I would say just off the top of my head, there's five or six really good guys -- and only five of them are going to make the Top 10.

So, (laughs) at the end of the day, when you've got five guys and five girls, the strength of talent, the depth of talent, doesn't matter. You're still only dealing with five males and five females. It's anybody's game at that stage.

Would you be personally disappointed if a guy won again this year?

Nigel Lythgoe: I really -- you know, I get my favorites. I'm human and I like my favor. I've never been disappointed with any one of the winners with the shows I've been involved in. I've been disappointed in losing people a little too early along the way, even in the first season, Tamyra Gray I was really upset about losing along the way but thrilled that Kelly Clarkson won.

So you know, I don't have a personal involvement from that point of view. I have a favorite. Normally, my favorite revolves around who I pick in the draw and hopefully I'll win the $150 bucks at the end of the series. But in truth, I don't have a horse in the race and I'd like to keep it that way so that nobody can make allegations like, "Oh, his favorite one! How did that happen?!"

We've heard so much about the judges so far except for Keith Urban. Could you talk a little bit about his contribution this season?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well Keith Urban, it actually came up in [the Television Critics Association Press Tour session] yesterday where somebody said all of a sudden, "Country music is being embraced by American Idol" -- which, in truth, I tried to put right and say, "Well, we did country music right from the beginning."

Simon Cowell doesn't like country music. I don't think he understands country music. I don't think he understands all the different genres of country music whether it's bluegrass, outlaw country or anything.

He just thinks that everything is, "Grandma got run over by a reindeer," or whatever it was. And that's his assumption of country music, and he always put it down. But we always had it there and we always had good country singers.

So we've always had it within American Idol. This is the first time, I think, that we've had a country judge. And that's really -- [Keith] is such a lovely man. He is the scratching post between Mariah and Nicki. (Laughs) Sometimes, he looks like he's watching a tennis match with his head bobbing between the two girls.

But when it's his turn to speak, he gives his mind and he won't put up with anybody else knocking him down. He's had rounds with both Mariah, Randy and Nicki -- a big one with Nicki in truth. So, they're very passionate. He's so passionate. Each one of the judges, I think, is looking for something else this year.

They know they've got a big job on their hands because [Jennifer Lopez], [Steven Tyler] and Randy did very well with Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips. So they also have got to live up to them, and they're very competitive people, you know? These are human beings that have experienced an incredible success in their own lives, and they don't want to sort of be put down in any way, shape or form.

So they are going for the best that they can get. I think Nicki is looking for an artist, I think Mariah is looking for the complete singer/songwriter, Randy is looking for somebody that sings on pitch, and Keith isn't just looking for a country star.

Keith is looking for an instrumentalist, a good singer and somebody that can capture that sort of magic charisma, if you will, and connect with the public. So they all have their own agendas, and Keith is a great addition this year.

Above is the first half of Nigel's call. Check back with Reality TV World soon for the concluding portion.

(Photo credit Fox)


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