American Idol producer, Nigel Lythgoe, sounded off on American Idol executives, rival singing competitions, why females can’t win, White Guys with Guitars, and more in a revealing interview conducted with TV Line after Wednesday’s season finale.
Nigel was a little peeved after FOX honcho, Kevin Reilly told reporters at the recent Upfronts in New York City that Idol should have been tweaked more Season 11 in anticipation of a ratings slide:
TVLINE | Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly recently told reporters that Idol‘s Season 11 ratings dipped “more than anticipated” and that in retrospect the show should’ve made more creative tweaks to stay competitive in the crowded reality singing competition space. How did you feel about those remarks, especially considering that in many ways, Season 11 felt like a genuine creative success?
I’m shocked that he would say we didn’t anticipate that. We always stayed away from [airing] two seasons of American Idol [per calendar year], knowing that ratings would dip, and the public would get tired. It’s just the very nature of offering the audience too much [of a particular thing]. Now, if you’re going to do The X Factor on the same [network] as American Idol, that’s like two American Idols back-to-back. So, yes, I’m shocked that they thought that the ratings wouldn’t dip. Plus, The Voice is in the mix now, too. There’s just a lot more on offer today, and kids don’t always watch the television anymore. The world has changed in the 11 years that we’ve been doing this.
TVLINE | Nobody is drawing 25 million viewers per week.
They’re not. That’s a fact. So, when Kevin says we’ve got to do new things next year, what are the changes? The format is a very simple format. Kids audition for us. Their talent is what brings people in to watch the show. Do we change the format? Maybe we should do it under water while basket weaving? It surprises me that there’s some kind of challenge to the producers to make it more exciting. What do they think we do? Sit on our asses not worrying about the show? I know, let’s watch the ratings dip down, that will be fun, won’t it? I get very annoyed with people, especially executives that should know what they’re talking about, making statements like that, to be frank with you.
Nigel swears he does not care who wins year to year, however he WOULD like to take a look at the voting system next year:
TVLINE | Let’s talk about a phrase that comes up a lot with regard to Idol, a phrase that makes me sort of uncomfortable: White Guys With Guitars. There’s no denying the fact that white male contestants who play the guitar have dominated the show for several years running. So what I’m wondering is, do you stress about getting a more diverse roster of winners from the show?
The last few years, without question, it has been that way. I always get the comments — and we get it on [So You Think You Can] Dance, too –”Oh, the boys are always going to win, and the girls are going to be cut off one by one.” Season 11 of [Idol], that’s been the first year I [couldn’t have told] you who’d definitely be in the finale. We never really had one person win two weeks running.
TVLINE | But is it a concern for Idol, as a franchise, to have a similar type of singer winning year after year, and to not have a female winner for five years running now?
There’s nothing you can do about it. When you say to America, you vote, the only thing that can be changed is the voting system. And I would hope that next year we would look at that.
Nigel does NOT stress about the kid’s post-idol careers, but he’s been disappointed when he felt the record label gave the kids the wrong songs–Ruben Studdard for instance:
TVLINE | Do you think and worry a lot about the contestants’ post-Idol careers? Because the one thing that really separates Idol from its competitors is that you really do launch a lot of folks who aren’t simply destined for the bargain bin a week after their albumns come out. That’s really a cornerstone, I think, for why people come back to the show every year.
Do I stress about it? No, I don’t stress about it because I’m already thinking about the next crop of kids, and they deserve our undivided attention. I do love the validation when they are successful. And I get annoyed when the record company, in my opinion, gives them the wrong music to sing. The best example I can give you of that is Ruben Studdard. I believe they just said, “Oh, you’re black, you should be singing urban music,” rather than [envisioning] this wonderful sort of crossover artist that he was. He was singing Neil Sedaka and the Bee Gees songs beautifully — in a sort of Donny Hathaway- Luther Vandross way. They just put him in this [narrow] category, which was a shame to me.
- “The kids have got to choose their own songs, because everybody has an opinion. You can’t turn around and say, ‘Oh that’s not a good song.’ Not for you, it’s not.”
- “The X Factor was magnificent in production. And certainly it got us to really look at our set and look at our production. What I always wanted to make sure of, though, was that we didn’t lose our contestants within the production.”
- “We do focus on the talent. The camera shots can really help that. You know, you don’t want to just keep taking wide angles. I’m not particularly interested in the audience. I am happy that they are there, and they give a great atmosphere. But I don’t need to see them when the kid is singing.”
- “The television producers, of which I include myself, don’t give a damn who wins this show. The only thing we’re interested in is turning out a fabulous show for people to watch. We get no money from the record companies or anything else. Thank goodness. Because, you know, there might be every reason to be swayed if that were true. We don’t care who wins. Even our favorites. Other than that, we just want the best people to be there at the end.”
If Nigel doesn’t think there are changes to be made, will he make them anyway at the behest of FOX executives? Or will he push back? Frankly, I think the audition rounds–which haven’t been changed much since the show began in 2002–are a little tired and could use a tweak or two.
Does Nigel really not care who wins? From the perspective of an executive producing a television show, it probably does not matter much who wins, although successful winners reflect back well on the show and could goose the ratings. It’s a tossup whether the lack of female winners since 2007 is helping or hurting the show. Personally, I think it’s the sudden influx of new shows like X Factor and The Voice that is responsible for this year’s steep downturn. There are only so many hours in the week to watch singing competitions. There are viewers out there making decisions between the shows, I believe. Plus, Americans are watching less network television, generally.
Nigel admits that the big production values on X Factor led to Idol adding their own flash into the mix. But please, Nigel. No more swinging chairs. Don’t break your promise to never lose site of the kids. Keeping the focus on the talent is what separates Idol from the imitators.
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