Nigel Lythgoe, creator and executive producer of American Idol [Fox, Wednesdays/Thursdays, 8/7C], finds himself amused and baffled by talk of the show’s ratings slippage – a subject he was happy to fold forth on when he spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers last week.
He was also willing to talk about the competition, why he thinks Idol is still the top singing competition series on television and his hope that Ryan Seacrest will stay with the show in seasons to come.
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I just saw you in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Well, I was curious—is Jimmy Iovine returning as a mentor on the show? Are you going to bring back guest mentors?
Nigel: If you trust Jimmy—if you classify what Jimmy did last year mentorship, yes he is. He’s coming back to do exactly what he did last year plus we’re going to have guest mentors as well, yes.
Any response from President Obama about the invite to sing on American Idol?
Nigel: No. No response at all. I have the feeling he’s a little too busy to answer me.
Well, it didn’t hurt to try right?
Nigel: No. It didn’t.
I was wondering first what your thoughts of the first two nights of The Voice were, and then, if there are going to be any changes, I don’t know, in the next few weeks given all the singing competitions on the air now and that the ratings have kind of been slipping.
Nigel: Well, my thoughts on The Voice at the moment I think it’s a fun format. It’s very gimmicky, which is interesting at this moment in time. I particularly like the relationship between Blake and Adam, and other than that I think they need stronger talent. We’ll see.
I wanted to follow up on that last question. Are there going to be any changes to Idol that you can talk about?
Nigel: Well, 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.
Well, can I ask you about the rating so far this season, you’re thoughts about them? Are you concerned?
Nigel: Well, you’re asking me in the 11th season when I thought I was going home after three weeks. You realize that don’t you?
Nigel: Don’t forget, Simon Cowell only packed for three weeks when we first came out here. No, I’m not—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 come kind of deterioration in the ratings. We’ve now got two major programs in The Voice and 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 shows that I can make, and that’s what I would like to continue doing.
I actually had a similar question, as to what you attributed the dramatic rating drop so far this season. And of course I understand what you’re saying about you thought you were going home after three weeks and here you are 11 seasons in, and everyone’s wondering what the problem is when you’re still reading the ratings charts every week. But is it inevitable that some sort of singing show fatigue sets in after this—?
Nigel: I think I’ve said it. Yes. It’s not just that. We always said we were not ever going to do two series of Idol a year. We said that right from the beginning and we never have done. Now, of course, with the X Factor sitting there it feels like two Idol seasons on Fox, and The Voice is there plus other shows are still waiting to come in. So yes, of course there’s going to be viewer fatigue. It’s the same as too many science fiction dramas or too many hospital drams. But all I can say is that after 11 years I don’t think we should be defending ourselves. I think we should still be saying, ‘Isn’t it fantastic that we’re still America’s number one show?’ So far.
I was wondering if you had watched Smash, and if you had thoughts about that, and like the effective shows like Idol and X Factor kind of influencing scripted television these days.
Nigel: Well, I think shows like Idol certainly are especially as Katherine McPhee is the star of it. That Kelly Clarkson is being pulled in to sort of mentor on The Voice—I feel like we’re turning stars out. And my other program So You Think You Can Dance is feeding Dancing with the Stars so I feel in a wonderful position having come over here to create future stars for American television.
Have you seen Smash?
Nigel: I saw the premier a while ago now. Yes, you know, wow. I think Katharine McPhee is fantastic. It’s going to be interesting to see if the public stays with it. I’m not sure. It depends on the drama now, I think. I’m not positive that America is going to necessarily get a musical show at this time without the campery of Glee, if you like.
I’m curious it seems like there is possibly a hunger for really sharp, smart, very, very honest feedback among judges on reality singing competitions. I think The Voice they’re very playful. X Factor they were very argumentative. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of incisive, smart feedback coming back. I think that’s something that people seem to miss, and I think J Lo did that for a while last season and then kind of abandoned that and seem to sort of go maybe to like an everyone’s beautiful mode. Are you going to encourage her to maybe try and do the job see did maybe during the top ten, top nine weeks last season because she was really great for a few weeks there?
Nigel: Well, I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear that. Michael, you’re dealing with artists here who are dealing with other artists. This whole process of judging is extremely difficult in being as honest and as articulate as you can be, and at the same time trying to support the artist. So you’re constantly saying, ‘Oh, it was pitchy. You need to get up to the note. You need to do this. You need to—.’ Rather than saying, ‘You suck. Go and sue your singing teacher. Pack your suitcase. You’re going home.’ Which a recording executive like Simon Cowell can do very easily because his thought behind everything is, ‘can you make me money?’ And that is that world. I’m not condemning him for that because Jimmy Iovine’s exactly the same—if I invest in you will you make me money? And that’s how their brains work.
An artist like Jennifer or Steven go, ‘Oh, God, I remember when I took criticism for this or I took criticism for that. I don’t want to be too harsh. My fans won’t love me if I’m too harsh.’ And that’s the way that goes. So they are as honest as I think they can be for themselves and at the same time as supportive as they want to be for the artist. Now, if that fails when we get down to the final 12, as it were, it’s only because they truly and honestly believe in their final 12. And even last year—and I’m quite a ruthless judge, if you like, sometimes—I sat down and thought, ‘Now, what do you say negative about this kid who’s just sang this song brilliantly?’
And if all people want is negativity—when you talk about being honest, if all you want them say is, ‘You didn’t sing that well, and that top note, you shouldn’t have gone for that, and that was rubbish, and I don’t like what you’re wearing,’ then don’t watch. If what you want is real good talent without gimmicks, without fireworks going off, without flashing lights, and just bloody good talent on the stage then watch American Idol because that’s what you’re going to get.
A quick follow up to that, I know too last year around the time … was eliminated there was talk about giving more power to the judges. Maybe having them decide between the bottom two, but that is the one difference that Idol has over the competition, that it’s purely up to America’s vote and there’s no—
Nigel: It is, Michael. Listen, we have survived for 11 years and whatever sort of bad press we’re getting about these rating— my God, the rest of the world would love these ratings for God sake. So whatever’s happening now, we’ve survived for 11 years. Why on earth would we start looking at other things to put in there? I have no idea. There’s going to be fatigue. There’s going to be, ‘Oh, yeah. American Idol.’ But American Idol is now in the history books and it will remain there, and let’s hope all of the other shows like X Factor and The Voice continue to be successful for 11 years. I’ll celebrate. I worship talent so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for them, but 11 years is a long time to go.
Less doom in about two tomorrow and this week, and I’m wondering if you can tell us—I know Randy and Jennifer have talked a lot about how grueling Hollywood Week is especially this season, and I’m wondering if you can tell us any favorites that you have or any surprises that will come out of this week.
Nigel: I’m shocked to a certain degree that—having been there for ten 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, is 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 and they were dropping like flies. There’s no question about it. You’ll see it, but they just weren’t drinking, and it’s all dehydration basically.
There was one we had, Amy Rumsfeld, 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’ 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 surprise is, no. I mean it’s just a 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 deprivation the night that they’ve got to work. The best ones were going to bed by 11:30, 12 o’clock, and the ones that sucked when they started and sucked when they finished were going to bed at 3:45, 4 o’clock in the morning.
I don’t. I don’t, no. I lie actually. One of my favorites was cut in Vegas.
You mentioned Vegas, can you tell us a little bit more about—you said it’s going to be Elvis this year. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
Nigel: It’s not Elvis, as such. We’re on the Elvis stage just to give us somewhere to go and make the kids feel like they were performing. And the songs, the style of music was late ’50s going into the ’60s so 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 the Wynn. That was the solo song with a solo instrument so they could choose the instrument that they wanted playing or play it themselves and just the solo voice. Again, the more we can show their natural talent the better.
You said that there haven’t been any changes so I presume that means that my favorite part of Hollywood group day is still in and still intact.
Nigel: Actually, it’s extremely dramatic because of all of the sort of passing out. It really is. I was right by—because of where I sit I was right by Symone Black, who was the girl who fell of 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?’ And 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, and she wobbles. You literally see a wobble and her eyes dropping to the back of her head, and she falls. And the camera man, 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 that 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.
Prior to season 11 you said it would be totally about the talent. How do you feel the show has raised the standards on its own singers this year?
Nigel: Well, I loved last year because we had such a diversity of talent. That we had jazz, we had country, we had rock, and we allowed them to stay in their genres. And I think that was very important for us last year. And I think that has brought more and more diversity to the judges this year so that the jazz singers felt comfortable in coming. Adele has certainly had a huge influence on the auditionees this year. I’ve never heard so many Adele songs. Last year it was Lady Gaga. This year it’s Adele, and boys and girls singing Adele. I certainly think those types of voices and that—listen, I’m probably going to be very un-pc in saying that shape of singer as well has come out and feels proud—and rightly so—to come to the audition and expose their talent, and it’s really good.
As usual, it’s up to America to decide whether it likes the talent or not. I certainly do, but then again, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, no. It’s much worse than last year,’ am I. So I think the talent is terrific. I think the diversity of talent is terrific. I haven’t agreed all the time with the judge’s results, if you like, with their choices but that’s great. That’s what makes it subjective. That’s what makes it interesting, and that’s why people watch the show.
And with the top shows all feeding from the same talent pool how do you feel that has an impact on Idol?
Nigel: I’m just blessed that America is so big and has got 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 remake it in the future. And 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.
During Hollywood Week the judges seemed to like seeing the contestants do group choreography and harmonize but that’s not important for a contestant to win. Why make them go through that?
Nigel: 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. It gives us lots of different areas to look at, 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. They’re exactly the same as 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.
Do you provide any special training for your camera operators for when a rejected contestant tries to hit them to get the camera out of their face?
Nigel: No. No. We haven’t in the past but maybe we should look at giving them all medical training so if anybody falls of the stage their ready to give them artificial respiration or if they get thumped themselves they can take care of the bleeding nose.
There’s been a lot of press about Ryan Seacrest moving on from the show. Can you speak about his foreseeable future or if there could be an idol without Seacrest?
Nigel: Well, listen, there can always be an Idol without anybody. I’m surprised that question’s still being asked after Simon left us 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 is the glue that sticks it all together and moves it along.
I’m a huge fan, from the moment I heard him on radio when I first came to America and asked him to come along and audition. I don’t have anything bad to say against Ryan. Apart from he’s too good looking, he’s got too much money, to be given $300 million to invest in companies. I hope he comes on for Nigel Lythgoe Productions. I just hope he doesn’t leave, to be frank with you. I think they should try and sort out a deal.
Somebody kind of touched on this earlier but I just wanted to ask again. We know some past winners like especially Chris Allen, were barely featured in the audition cities. I was wondering if there’s anyone that you know that we haven’t see yet that could surprise us.
Nigel: 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 that 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.
Yeah. So we’ll probably get some that will—well, we haven’t seen the auditions but during Hollywood Week they’ll probably be shown.
Nigel: You have now got—what have you got—one, two, three, four, five, six, there’s 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: I have not decided that, no.
Could you elaborate a little bit more on the process there or anything like that?
Nigel: I haven’t made the decision that they can do any more than one save if they’re given one save. So I don’t know where Randy’s gotten that from. I think he may have misunderstood. It won’t be the first time. But no, the judges do not have any more than one save at this time.
In the past there have been a lot of clips that I like to refer to as the “crash and burn clips” of the various contestants, and this season I’ve noticed there have been significantly fewer. Is that intentional to go in line with the more constructive judging rather than being denigrating to the people or is that just something that turned out that way?
Nigel: We certainly are more constructive, as well, from last season. We haven’t had, in truth, that many bad ones that are bad fun. William Hung is bad fun, and we haven’t had many of those. And therefore, you’re always a little bit weary of the people coming. Are they coming just to have fun with their friends from university or I’ll go in and I’ll make myself look stupid or you don’t know if the people are ill when they come to you. So I think we’ve become a lot wearier about how we treat people. I think we have had some extraordinary talent, and we’ve decided we would like to feature the talent.
As I said previously, if you just want people to be made fun of we will do that with ease. I mean being English and having that sort of lack of sensitivity, like I’m ready to take the piss out of anybody, whoever they are. But 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.” Not about the production, 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.
Photos by Michael Becker/courtesy of Fox