'American Idol' producer Nigel Lythgoe: Symone Black's fall was scary
By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 02/08/2012
With Fox's broadcasts of American Idol's eleventh-season auditions now in the books, the season will begin heating up starting with tonight's broadcast of the reality singing competition's initial Hollywood Rounds.
During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe discussed what viewers can expect to see in the upcoming episodes -- including what changes have been made to the show, whether viewers should expect any surprises or new talented vocalists emerge who have yet to be featured, and how dramatic and exhausting Hollywood Week will be for the contestants this season, especially Symone Black.
Will producer Jimmy Iovine remain a mentor for American Idol's eleventh season and will there be guest mentors?
Nigel Lythgoe: Well, if you classify what Jimmy Iovine did last year as mentorship, then yes, he is. He's going to do exactly what he did last year. Plus, we're going to have guest mentors as well, yeah.
What are your thoughts on this season of The Voice so far and will there be any changes to Idol in the next few weeks given the show's ratings have been slipping a bit because of other reality singing competitions?
Nigel Lythgoe: Well, my thoughts on The Voice in the moment -- I think it's a fun format. It's very gimmicky, which is interesting in this moment in time. I particularly like the relationship between [coaches Blake Shelton and Adam Levine]. Other than that, I think they need stronger talent. We'll see.
Will there be any changes to Idol?
Nigel Lythgoe: There's going to be changes because obviously we're not doing the Beatles show again this year. We're going to the Elvis stage in Vegas and we are going to Le Reve to do our "Green Mile" show. Other than that, there are no changes to the format at this time. I mean, we constantly look at it and tweak it, but no. I don't see that we need any changes at this time.
Are you concerned about the ratings Idol has received so far this season?
Nigel Lythgoe: Well, you're asking me in the eleventh season when I thought I was going home after three weeks [in the first season] -- you realize that, do you? (Laughs) Simon Cowell only packed for three weeks when we first came out here. No, listen, I am thrilled. Let's be honest about this.
After 11 years, I'm thrilled with these ratings. We're constantly compared against ourselves and against our own ratings. Of course there's going to be some kind of deterioration in the ratings. We've now got two major programs -- The Voice and The X Factor -- against us.
Whether people like them or dislike them, they're still feeding from the same talent and it's still going to dilute our audience. But am I worried about the ratings? I'm more worried about getting the show right. My job is to worry about making the best show that I can make, and that's what I would like to continue doing.
What would you attribute Idol's dramatic ratings drop to so far this season? Do you think some reality singing competition fatigue is inevitable amongst viewers?
Nigel Lythgoe: I think I've said it. Yeah, it's not just that. We all said we were not ever going to do two seasons of Idol a year. We said that right from the beginning and we never have done it. Now of course, with The X Factor sitting there, it feels like two Idol seasons on Fox and The Voice is there apart from some other shows still waiting to come in.
So, yeah, of course there's going to be some viewer fatigue. It's the same as too many science fiction dramas or too many hospital dramas. But all I can say is after 11 years, I don't think we should be defending ourselves. I think we should be still saying, "Isn't it fantastic that we're still America's number one show," you know? So far.
Do you have any favorite singers so far this season and will there be any surprises during Hollywood Week?
Nigel Lythgoe: I'm shocked to a certain degree that having been there for 10 years and the kids have watched this since some of them were five-years-old, I'm shocked that they still don't realize how tough Hollywood Week is.
A lot of it, I think, has to do with geographic circumstances of being East Coast kids coming to the West Coast -- not realizing how dry it is. And especially with our winter this year, it's been so sort of hot, that they're just not drinking enough. And most of our people passing out -- they were dropping like flies.
There's no question about it. You'll see it! But you know, they just weren't drinking and it's all dehydration, basically. There was one we had, Amy Brumfield -- tent girl -- came ill and she certainly passed a bug around, which didn't help.
People were vomiting, but the passing out was purely down to either stupidity or dehydration. When I say stupidity, I mean, if you drink five bottles of Five Hour -- the vitamin thing that keeps you awake for five hours -- if you have five of those and don't eat, it's not going to help. And that was just one of the parents for God sake!
But other than that, the surprises? No. It's just the surprise that people don't realize what they're going to be put through, because we haven't changed it. And yet, it's still that sleep depravation the night that they've got to work. The best runs were going to bed by 11:30-12PM. And the ones that sucked when they started and sucked when they finished were going to bed at 3:45-4AM in the morning.
Do you have any favorite singers so far?
Nigel Lythgoe: I don't. I don't, no. I lie, actually. One of my favorites was cut in Vegas.
Could you talk a little bit more about the Elvis aspect to the show's Hollywood Week?
Nigel Lythgoe: It's not Elvis as so much we're on the Elvis stage -- just to give us somewhere to go and make the kids feel like they were performing, you know? And the songs, the style of music, was late 50s going into the 60s. So, you know, Buddy Holly, Elvis himself, all of those sort of close-harmony groups. That's what that particular show is.
And then of course when we went to Le Reve, which is just an incredible venue at Encore and at the Wynn. That was the solo song with a solo instrument, so they could choose the instrument that they wanted to play or play it themselves and then just the solo voice. Again, the more we can show their natural talent, the better.
How dramatic will Hollywood Week really be?
Nigel Lythgoe: It's going to be extremely dramatic especially because of all the passing out. It really is. I was right -- because where I sit -- I was right by Symone Black, who was the girl who fell off the stage, and it was almost like slow motion.
And when I watch it back -- because the cameras weren't expecting it, we just caught it on a wide angle, unfortunately -- it was like whoever was asleep on his camera went, "Where did that girl go?" She just disappears below the frame.
But when she dropped, I watched myself walking towards the body as it were in slow motion, and the cameraman watched it happen just below the stage. She wobbled. She literally -- you see her wobble and her eyes drop into the back of her head and she falls.
The cameraman, bless him, tries to dive to catch her because he's on the floor on his knees, and he doesn't get there and knocks his camera -- it falls on top of him. So, it's a complete -- oh my God! This is terrible! I'm shouting for medics and it's scary, to be frank.
Since the other reality singing competitions on TV all feed off the same talent pool as Idol, how do you think that impacts the show?
Nigel Lythgoe: I'm just blessed that America is so big and we discover such wonderful talent year after year. I must say that going down to the 15-year-old area has helped us. It's reinvigorated it. I think that talent is really good, really young. I don't think The Voice is feeding off that talent.
It seems to be sort of feeding off the talent that hasn't quite made it and hopefully will re-make it in the future. The X Factor sort of did a little bit of both and sort of opened its gates to the groups and everything else, so it didn't really know what it wanted to do, I don't think.
The judges have contestants perform group routines with harmonization and choreography during Hollywood Week on Idol, but that's not important for a contestant to win. So why do you guys choose to make them go through that?
Nigel Lythgoe: Because we see how they cope with people -- to see how they cope with individual harmonies. Each one of them gets a solo within that. The choreography doesn't matter. You can stand there on a microphone as far as we're concerned. That's up to them if they want to do it. It shows off their personalities. That too is exceptionally important as well in a performer.
So, it gives us lots of different areas to look at. It gives us comment, and at that point, hopefully everyone's got a good voice. So then, you start looking for other qualities to put them through on. It's exactly the same on So You Think You Can Dance. Why put them in pairs because it's a solo competition? Because you can judge them against somebody else. That's why.
Nigel Lythgoe: Well, listen. There can always be an Idol without anybody. I'm surprised that question is still being asked after Simon left. That's when everybody said there wouldn't be an Idol without Simon. I believe that Seacrest is probably the best host in the business. Why he hasn't received an Emmy yet, I'm not sure.
I would hate to think of him leaving American Idol. I think he's the glue that sticks it all together and moves it along, so I'm a huge fan from the moment I heard him on the radio when I first came to America and asked him to come along and audition.
So, you know, I don't have anything bad to say against Ryan apart from he's too good looking, he's got too much money and can be given $300 million to invest in companies. I'll hope he comes onto Nigel Lythgoe Productions. I just hope he doesn't leave, to be frank with you. I think they should try to sort out some kind of deal.
Throughout most of Idol's seasons, some of its best singers weren't featured at all in the auditions prior to Hollywood Week. Is there anyone who viewers haven't seen yet that you think may surprise them?
Nigel Lythgoe: We're constantly trying to make sure that everybody that is in our finals is seen by the end of the audition process or the "Green Mile" process, so that the ones who are put before America, America has seen somewhere.
But yes, at this moment in time, there's an awful lot you haven't seen yet -- a great many you haven't seen yet. You have now got one, two, three, four, five, six -- something like six hours of television to go yet.
During a conference call last week, Randy Jackson mentioned that although there won't be many changes to American Idol this season, you guys are considering changing The Judges' Save so the judges can use it more than once during the season. Can you comment on that at all? I know you mentioned there won't be any changes earlier in the call, so does that mean you've since decided that won't be changing?
Nigel Lythgoe: I have not decided that, no.
Could you elaborate on the process that's going on in terms of that potential change or the talks in progress?
Nigel Lythgoe: I haven't made the decision that they can do any more than one save -- if they give them one save. So, I don't know where Randy has gotten that from. I think he may have misunderstood. It won't be the first time. (Laughs) The judges do not have any more than one save at this time.
This season, there seems to have been significantly fewer contestants that had truly terrible, and often funny, auditions. Was that intentional in the way that the judges have given more constructive criticism to the contestants instead of just putting them down and rejecting them?
Nigel Lythgoe: We certainly are more constructive, as you know from last season. We haven't had in truth that many bad ones that are "bad fun." William Hung is bad fun. We haven't had many of those, and therefore, you're always a little bit wary of the people coming.
Are they coming just to have fun with their friends from a university? "Oh, I'll go and I'll just make myself look stupid" or you don't know if people are ill when they come to you. So, I think we've become a lot more wary about how we treat people.
I think we have had some extraordinary talent and we've decided we'd like to feature the talent. And as I said previously, if you just want people to be made fun of, we will do it with ease. Being English and having that lack of sensitivity, I'm ready to take the piss out of anybody -- whoever they are.
At the same time, we have a responsibility to say if we're a talent show, that at the end of the day -- and I've always said this for 11 years -- it's about the talent. It's not about the production. It's not about the judges. It's about the talent and we are as strong or as weak as our final talent that we present to America. And that's what we have to stand by.
(Photo credit Fox)
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