'American Idol' producer talks about seventh-season format changes
By Christopher Rocchio, 12/19/2007
American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe believes being successful doesn't mean you have to be stagnant.
"We always stick to the Idol formula, but we never sort of rest on our laurels. I think you've seen every year we try different things and see how it works. We've never stopped fiddling around with the format," Lythgoe told reporters during a conference call last Thursday. "We're always looking at what to do and how things work, because we want to try and keep it as fresh as possible. Even though the new talent freshens it up every year, there's still old things that we would like to change."
American Idol's seventh-season talent has been a hot topic of conversation among judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson after the "Hollywood Round" -- where 160 hopefuls were narrowed to 24 semifinalists, 12 boys and 12 girls -- came to a close late last month. Jackson has called the talent "unbelievable;" Cowell claims it has the potential to be the best season so far; and Abdul said the "Hollywood Round" was full of "stand-out superstars."
"I think we're all paid to say [that] every year," Lythgoe joked. "I would say that we've got some excellent individuals this year. Last year, I said I thought it would be our strongest Top 12 as a Top 12 -- and I still stand by that -- even though a lot of people dissed us last year with our final group, but as a group, they were the strongest. When I think of other years where we've had bad people in it and you're keeping your fingers crossed they're going to be voted out or you're embarrassed by them. I wasn't embarrassed by anybody last year. Even young [Sanjaya Malakar], I thought came through with all of the hits that he was taking very competently."
While Lythgoe admitted the judges gush about Idol's talent every off-season, he reiterated previous comments that Idol 7 will focus more on its finalists' identities.
"I think they are going to be standout individuals right from the beginning this year," Lythgoe said. "It's not just a question of seeing somebody grow like [Idol 6 champ Jordin Sparks] last year that grew across a series, so you understood. I watched her go up a ladder of voting. This year, I think you're going to go, 'Wow. He's great. She's good. Wow. And that kid is great, too.' And they're going to standout very, very quickly."
One of the main reasons Lythgoe said participants will stand-out quickly is because producers "pushed the individuals much more," and thus will hopefully be "rewarded for that" by making a personal connection between viewers and contestants.
"People understanding the people that they were voting for a lot better," explained Lythgoe, adding it won't be from "the Sanjaya point of view." "I think we got carried away with the mentors last season, for sure, and we will take less mentors this year. We will spend more time talking to the kids about their lives, what they want from this competition, and where they can't judge... So you never really know what's going to happen, but you figure out if you give them a genre then hopefully there are enough songs there that they can choose and bring up to date."
While Lythgoe wouldn't comment on what mentors the producers have lined-up for Idol 7, he did reveal that they've already reached agreements with two undisclosed artists that he's "absolutely thrilled" to have landed. They defintely aren't troubled pop star Britney Spears or former Beatle Paul McCartney, however.
"I would have had Britney Spears last year -- for sure -- when I thought she was trying to get it all back together again," explained Lythgoe. "Britney, at this moment in time, I don't think is well enough to do anything, and I think she needs looking after rather than being pushed in front of cameras or pushing herself in front of cameras. I think she needs to get herself together, bless her. I think she's an exceptionally talented girl, and was extremely professional. I think she needs taking care of right now."
Lythgoe explained the reason why McCartney won't be serving as a mentor and finalists won't be singing Beatles' hits is because Idol doesn't have the rights to the group's songbook. While the music of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was used during Idol 6's finale, Lythgoe said producers received "special permission to do that" because it was the album's 40th birthday.
"I will always keep my fingers crossed... Every year somebody says, 'Paul McCartney is doing it this year.' Let me say straightaway to everybody, 'No he's not,'" Lythgoe said. "But if that Lennon/McCartney songbook were open to us, I would love that. At the same time, I would really like it when we have got our best singers. I would hate to ruin Beatles material. I really would."
One element that would help to enhance Beatles material would be the use of instruments by contestants, an Idol format change that was first used during the seventh-season "Hollywood Round."
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"We did on the Hollywood week, and for some it worked out brilliantly, three that I'm positive are going to be in our Top 12, as much as you can be, were terrific," said Lythgoe. "And a couple of others just really crashed and burned very quickly. It's very difficult to sing in tune and play the drums at the same time. It sounded like a complete nightmare."
Lythgoe said he's unsure if finalists will be able to use instruments on the show.
"We're talking about it. We're seeing how it will affect the competition," he explained. "We're trying to figure out, does it make it unfair on people that can't do that, or are you showing America their talent, which is what it's all about. So we're open-minded at the moment. We're going to see how it goes. We're not closing the door on it. At the same time, we want to make it fair."
Apparently another ongoing discussion amongst producers continues to be whether or not Idol will ever increase its maximum age requirement to 30. The upper end of the Idol's age requirement went from 26 to 28 prior to fourth-season auditions and producers have previously admitted considering raising it to 30, however so far the show has yet to do so. Despite the early upper-limit change, the the Fox mega-hit's minimum age requirement has always been 16.
"I can tell you now that there are three 16-, 17-year-olds who are absolutely brilliant this year, absolutely brilliant, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how they progress," said Lythgoe. "At the same time, when we opened up the age group to 28... And I don't know why we did it to 28, for the life of me. I keep thinking, 'Why did we do 28?' Maybe because it sounded like 30 was just a bit too old. But the minute we did that, we got some really good, strong people. It brought a different dimension to it. I honestly hold my hand up and say, 'It doesn't matter to me.' All that matters to me at the end of the day is that they are going to be provocative or talented."
While the talent on the stage is a big must for any Idol season -- the show's producers have also apparently learned that it's good to have a big heart as well -- as Idol will once again host an Idol Gives Back fund-raising event benefiting various U.S. and international charities.
Idol Gives Back's2007 charity event aired over the course of two late-April Idol sixth-season episode broadcasts, and the event raised $75 million from both home viewer and corporate contributions. It also featured some tough moments for the Top 6 finalists, as the second night of the fundraiser was held during one of the season's results show broadcasts.
"We were forced into that situation because of the very nature of what we were doing," explained Lythgoe. "We had many discussions about it. I refused to cut anybody that night. I can't ask America to send money in, look at these poor people, 'Oh and by the way, Jordin Sparks, you're cut tonight. Bye-bye, darling.' It would have been horrible. It would have been awful, but if you know me after seven years, you know I'm not just going to say at the beginning of the show, 'We're not going to cut anybody.' I've got to play. I've got to be cruel. That's the puppet master in me, if you will. Yes, we messed around with the kids. Bless them."
Lythgoe was quick to add he "wouldn't dream of doing it again" like that, and has found a simple solution.
"We only did it then because of the situation we were in that was the only airtime we had," he said. "Now we're taking a separate day out altogether, so what we'll probably do is the competition on a Tuesday; the [Idol Gives Back] show on a Wednesday; and the results on a Thursday."
The live two-hour concert and fundraiser is scheduled to air Wednesday, April 9 at 8PM ET (PT tape-delayed), and Lythgoe said with the added time to plan the event and the experience from last year's fundraiser, things should run more smoothly.
"I think we've got a template now," he said. "We put [last year's] together in, I suppose, six weeks, and we had to rush people out to Africa and down to New Orleans. It was probably the hardest six weeks of my life, and we were in the middle of an American Idol season. So it was absolutely ridiculously frightening because you would go to bed at night thinking, 'Oh my God. We're not going to get this done. It's not going to be ready.'"
"We were clinging to straws a lot of the time," he continued, "and people would say, 'Yes; I'll do it.' Then they dropped out. So the very fact that got made was incredible. The very fact then that it made as much money as it did was astounding. We can only believe that now we have time to actually think about it, sort it out, and separate it a little bit from Idol, the competition. We're going to get it better."
"I'm being told this year, it should be a bumpy year because of the writer's strike," said Lythgoe, later clarifying "bumpy" means the show will draw higher ratings due to fact that nearly all broadcast network scripted programming is likely to be in repeats. "Hopefully it's going to be a good year because we've got good talent, and I think we will fluctuate year-on-year with that talent.... There will be very little else on, apart from repeats."
However despite the strike, Lythgoe said aficionados shouldn't expect Fox to air Idol 24/7.
"The same way as we've always said -- and Fox had been very good in following the example of just doing one a year -- it would have been very easy when we first started to do a January through May and then a September through November season," explained Lythgoe. "They've been very good at saying, 'No, we're going to protect the brand. We'll just go once a year.' But when we do go that once a year, we are turning out something like three hours of live television a week, sometimes more than that, as you know."
While Idol's 18 sixth-season Tuesday broadcasts averaged 30.3 million viewers (about 900,000 viewers less than the fifth-season); the show's 18 Wednesday broadcasts averaged 30.6 million viewers (about a 400,000 increase over the fifth-season); and an average of 30.7 million total viewers watched the show's finale -- those number were actually somewhat low by Idol standards.
Despite the ratings slip, Idol still finished the 2006-2007 television as the No. 1 show among both total viewers and the Adults 18-49 demographic for the third straight year. Lythgoe said he has no plans for "jumping shocks" into Idol just to achieve more lofty ratings.
"This program will be around as long as people want it around. If we lost 50% of our audience tomorrow, it would still be the biggest show on television. I mean that is the fact of it," he said. "So what I want to do is insure that the talent is strong and that is what will make people come back. I think that's what we forgot at the end of last season was we were more interested -- as I've said before -- in the mentors and the judges. It's not about the judges and it's not about the mentors. It's about the program as a whole and, first and foremost, it's about the kids, the talent that comes on and their stories. And that's what will keep people watching."
Some of the "stories" -- including the alleged names, ages, home cities and MySpace pages -- of the Idol 7 "Hollywood Round" participants have been leaked on various websites in the past few weeks, however Lythgoe seemed unconcerned about that information getting to fans earlier than expected.
"There's nothing we can do about it, I don't think," he explained. "We have to do numerous background checks. There are a lot of things we have to do. Publicity has got to take photographs. Normally the press are great. They're embargoed and they know well enough to adhere to that. But it's going to happen... It's just endless, and thank goodness at this moment in time it's a very, very minute part of the market."
With all that's in-store for Idol 7 -- which will premiere over the course of two consecutive nights on Tuesday, January 15 and Wednesday, January 16, with both two-hour broadcasts beginning at 8PM ET/PT -- Lythgoe said he can confirm one aspect of the show that certainly won't be changing.
"We have got the best judges for American Idol on American Idol," he said. "That chemistry and their chemistry with Ryan Seacrest is one of the main elements of the success of this show, and I wouldn't dream of changing any one of them."