Reality TV: THR's 50 Most Powerful List
The car stereo in Nigel Lythgoe’s Bentley is, like its owner, always working overtime. Scanning the ’60s-, ’70s- and ’80s-themed stations on his Sirius XM satellite radio add-on, the 62-year-old executive producer of Fox’s American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance has music on the brain.
Whether it’s an upcoming theme or a superstar booking (Katy Perry and Coldplay recently used the Idol stage to perform new singles), time spent interviewing Idol perma-mentor and Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine or a rehearsal with one of the show’s finalists, music is an integral component of the series’ success -- and Lythgoe and fellow executive producer Ken Warwick have been talking about it since they were 13-year-old classmates in Liverpool. There, in 1963, the two studied only a few miles from the Cavern Club, where The Beatles played their early shows, which is one reason nostalgia still rules on Idol, where bands like Queen and artists such as Billy Joel and Carole King are revered and respect for the classics is the surest barometer of potential.
“If the contestants are successful, then we are going to remain successful -- it’s that simple,” declares Lythgoe as he reflects on Idol’s evolving appeal. “I’ve always said that it’s about the talent, not the judges. I’m very happy where we are right now after 11 seasons.”
Lythgoe can get defensive (and more than a little protective) when it comes to making sure that Idol never feels stale, especially to the millions of young people who’ve literally grown up watching it. Perception, he says, is tantamount, so when the No. 1 show in America for 10 years running is declared prematurely dead or oldfashioned or irrelevant by the media, Lythgoe takes it personally. See, for instance, his befuddlement over Idol’s lack of a major-category Emmy, having lost to The Amazing Race eight times (and Top Chef once) since 2003.
“We have the audition process, which is enormous, then we have the big shows in Vegas, which we do in two days, then there’s the live show for three hours every week for months, and then we get three days to put on a finale as big as the Grammys,” he says. “I don’t know how you then compare that to traveling all around the world on a prerecord.”
And don’t get him started on the Ryan Seacrest snub for host accolades. Rants Lythgoe: “He’s gotten better and better. His timing is now superb. … I don’t understand how Ryan has never received the Emmy. I just cannot comprehend how, as good as Jeff Probst is, you can compare that to somebody who hosts a two-hour live show weekly. I don’t know what the voters are thinking.” On the other hand, the notion of “you’re not good enough” is a key element of Lythgoe’s reality ethos.
Having started as a dancer in his teens and early 20s, it’s something he has carried his entire life. “Rejection is a dancer’s middle name, and that’s what this whole thing is about,” he says. “No matter what show we’re doing.”
There are a lot of shows on Lythgoe’s plate, including Opening Act on E! (premiering July 9), which offers YouTube stars an opportunity to play on the same stage as multiplatinum artists and icons, and A Chance to Dance on Ovation (Aug. 17), on which two British Royal Ballet rebels known as BalletBoyz try to make it on their own, in addition to three scripted programs.
Lythgoe is the talent, too, serving as a judge on Dance as well as creator and executive producer, and on any given day, he seems to do it all at the same time. Lythgoe travels constantly, from Los Angeles to New York to Las Vegas to Nashville to Washington, D.C., and his shooting schedule is just as insane.
A typical week for Lythgoe goes something like this: a red-carpet event Tuesday night; a Wednesday morning location shoot for Opening Act, then a run-through and dress rehearsal for Idol, an Idol live show, and at 11:30 p.m. he gets the results and starts planning the reveal. Up at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and back to Idol to shoot Iovine’s comments. That night is the results show, and on Friday it’s back to picking songs for the week ahead and working out arrangements (Lythgoe and Warwick serve as in-house music historians). Saturday might hold a shoot at the Opening Act mansion or auditions for Dance, then it’s on to New York for a Sunday gala. You get the picture.
“It’s passion, really,” says Lythgoe, making no apologies. “It doesn’t feel like work because it’s so enjoyable. I’m watching other people’s talent and admiring it. I’m vampiric -- if they’re bad, then I get no energy from them and I’m tired. But if they’re good, then I’m sucking energy from them.”
When it comes to his chosen TV genre, the original Mr. Nasty abides by another essential tenet of reality: being real. “I don’t feel like I put on an act when I go on TV,” he says. “I’m always looking for an angle, but you approach things as a human being.”