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'American Idol' EP Nigel Lythgoe: 'I Worry About Being Called Karaoke'

The original Mr. Nasty talks to THR about ratings pressure, new talent (Lauren Alaina isn’t the only contestant exciting producers) and life after Simon Cowell.

Nigel Lythgoe
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images For BAFTA Los Angeles
Nigel Lythgoe

American Idol season 10 just started, but if you think Nashville auditioner Lauren Alaina has the contest in the bag, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says just you wait. “You haven’t really seen how strong the talent is yet,” he cautions. “We can afford to lose 10 great ones this year because they’re that good!”

It’s a good reminder to all of us Idol Worshipers that the show doesn’t really get going until the live episodes. Yahoo blogger Lyndsey Parker and I were discussing this Monday night after Kimberly Caldwell’s show at the Hotel Café: If you go back to the audition phase of Season 9, our excitement level was genuinely high this time last year as unique ultra-talented singers like Lilly Scott and Katelyn Epperly were rolled out for all America to see (not to mention the unforgettable Denver moment when Casey James took his shirt off). It was only after those favorites were eliminated that interest began to wane, leaving us with a so-so season in more ways than one.    Naturally, in returning to Idol after a two-year break, Lythgoe has given lots of thought to the show’s gradual ratings decline and readily admits, “I always worry about being called karaoke.” So how is he tackling those challenges while handling the season 10 pressure? Gingerly, of course. The insanely busy executive took a few minutes away from editing Idol to talk to THR.    THR: Why do you think people are so hard on Idol   Nigel Lythgoe: Because it is such a huge phenomenon. You're always going to question it, you're always going to say, "Oh, the ratings are going down." The amount of people who have told me to give it up now that Simon's gone -- “That's it, it's all over!” It's never been about Simon [Cowell]. The show is in seventy-odd other countries where it's been hugely successful without Simon in it. But Idol has gone dark over the years. When we started being mercilessly cruel and saying things like, “Give up, don't ever sing.” Even the banter between Ryan Seacrest and Cowell got quite dark, and I think people just went with it. We just needed to bring back the fun to it, and that's what's happened now -- it's fun again.   So you’re happy with reaction to the new season so far?   Yes. The talent is so much stronger this year, you haven't really seen it yet, and I think Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are both stars in their own right. You forget that we've had this trainwreck that was following Simon, and then Simon disassociated himself from the show over the last few years, turned his back on the strange people they brought in to judge. So I knew it was going to be better than people expected. To have lost our star and to be in our tenth season is remarkable. It's broken more records than any other program, including MASH. It's stunning, but at the end of the day, it comes down to talent.   When the ratings are about to come out, do you cringe at having to hear the numbers?    For a long time, I was paid to worry about ratings -- that was my job. Now I'm paid to make the best show I can. So I've always tried to steer clear and say, “Look, you worry about the ratings, I'm just going to make the best show…” Until last week when I suddenly got annoyed at people going, “Wow, the show is down so much.” No, it’s not. At 26 million [viewers], I'm really happy with that. Still, I was a bit worried this week, and I just kept my fingers crossed.   As someone who covers the music business, I’m endlessly curious about how a music nerd like Jimmy Iovine will impact the competition, can you shed any light?    I don't know how it's going to work yet, I don't think any of us do. All we know is that we've got someone with golden ears who’s going to turn these people into superstars. As you know, after the series is finished, we hand them over. I still say Ruben Studdard should be a big star, like a Luther Vandross crossover artist. They tried to turn him into an urban star, which he isn't. So it's really after the show I'd like to see him do his work, but he's got some fabulous producers -- Ron Fair, Rodney Jerkins, Tricky -- that hopefully will assist these kids in choosing the right song and give it some modern arrangement. I always worry about being called a karaoke show. The accusations are always going to be there, but I figure, if we're working with the best people in the music business now, some of those criticisms will go away.    And the theme weeks?   They're the same as ever. What we're not going to say is, “You've got to sing a rock 'n roll song this week,” because that doesn't happen in real life. You don't say to a pop singer like Lady Gaga or to a country artist like Faith Hill, 'You have to sing rock.' But somewhere in the Elton John catalogue, you're going to have to find a song that suits your own voice.    What are your thoughts on Glee? Do you think it’s stealing Idol’s thunder a bit this year?    I think the show is really good… and the subjects they're dealing with are really important -- like drugs, sexuality, masturbation. I’d like see a bit more edge to the music, but [the success of the songs] just shows that you can sing melodies again. I don’t feel it’s stealing the show’s thunder because we've never really released Idol’s [sales] on records. But of all the downloads, we've covered the charts from No. 1 down to 10 nearly every week.