'American Idol' Returns: Mariah, Minaj and a Make-or-Break Moment
This story first appeared in the Jan. 11, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"There's something a little more romantic about Mariah Carey shouting, 'You're going to Hollywood!,' than Nicki Minaj going, 'You made it to Northridge!' "
So cracks American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, yet here they are, on Dec. 12, deep in the suburban no-man's-land of the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles from Grauman's Theatre, the Walk of Fame or any semblance of Hollywood glamour, except, of course, for the music giants taking their seats at the Valley Performing Arts Center: multiplatinum R&B hitmaker Carey, hip-hop artist Minaj and country star Keith Urban -- new additions for season 12 alongside the sole original judge, Randy Jackson, who also recently started co-managing Carey, with Irving Azoff. (Recounts Jackson: "We were talking about it one day, and she said, 'Dude, would you help me?' And I was like, 'I guess that might work.' ")
Everybody knows that television is the land of make-believe, and thus, this is what's called "Hollywood Week," Idol's coveted and simultaneously dreaded six-day boot camp where 279 hopefuls are put through the vocal ringer, then paraded in front of the panel of judges. This year's slogan: "Others dream, Idol delivers."
"For the record," pauses Lythgoe, who came to the valley this time for a day of boys' group auditions, "we have taken the contestants around Hollywood." No doubt the cameras were rolling.
Perception is tantamount in the world of Idol, which notched an impressive 10 straight seasons as America's No. 1 show -- and Fox's crowning achievement -- but has seen ratings decline by as much as 25 percent in the past two years, even with such high-profile talent as Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler occupying the judges' chairs (at the hefty reported price of $15 million and $10 million, respectively). The Idol franchise still is worth an estimated $8 billion, while the U.S. version averaged 17.2 million viewers an episode with a 30-second ad commanding north of $340,000 in 2012, second only to NBC's Sunday Night Football, yet it can't seem to shake the nagging stigma that it's on the way out or, worse yet, already irrelevant.
Not helping matters: a weak programming slate for Fox, which will use Glee in the post-Idol slot Thursday nights, and the fact that a newcomer like NBC's The Voice, which averaged 12 million viewers during its most recent season, is treading ever more closely to Idol's numbers, especially among younger viewers. (The X Factor seems, for the most part, to be a nonstarter, drawing an audience of about 8.7 million an episode.) Indeed, Idol's decline in dominance has been worldwide, as all three formats are competing against one another in dozens of territories.
To combat that has-been appearance, the Idol producers are taking their biggest gamble yet and have recruited a group of judges that feels like a powder keg. Make that one that already has exploded, when the panel's two resident divas let grace go by the wayside back in October, launching into the sort of expletive-filled verbal catfight you'd expect to see on an episode of Real Housewives, not the most popular, most wholesome show in America.
You could point to any number of factors contributing to Idol's audience erosion. There's the oversaturation of the talent-show format: NBC has The Voice and America's Got Talent; Fox is home to Idol and X Factor; even ABC tried its hand with Duets, featuring original Idol Kelly Clarkson along with John Legend, Robin Thicke and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, as did The CW with its fledgling series The Next. On top of that, there's the natural aging of its audience (the average Idol viewer is 48) and its more than occasionally hokey theme weeks (for example: the perennial "Song From the Year You Were Born" night) and sappy scripts. Producers CORE Media (formerly CKX, which bought 19 Entertainment in 2005 for $210 million) and FremantleMedia -- along with creator Simon Fuller and fellow executive producers Lythgoe and Ken Warwick -- might even agree with all of these points, so long as you don't deny that the show has produced stars.
"It's the biggest and certainly the most meaningful of the shows," defends Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming and the executive who gave the first greenlight to American Idol, then an offshoot of the Fuller-created British Pop Idol, in 2002. "It's the one that started it all. It has an elegance and simplicity to it. But ultimately, the fact that people can still become stars proves that Idol is head and shoulders above the others. This show has engagement, and it's engagement that creates stars.
Indeed, in spite of several high-profile underperformers (among the more memorable blunders: season one's Justin Guarini and season nine's Lee DeWyze), Idol's track record is on par with that of a well-resourced major label. About one out of every 10 acts signed becomes a hit (to compare, neither The Voice nor X Factor has seen a single contestant's song enter the top 20 of Billboard's Hot 100, and its winners, which include Javier Colon and Jermaine Paul, have all but disappeared from the field; ditto for X Factor, which has seen only one album, an EP by third-placer Chris Rene, released by a finalist). To date, Idol alums have amassed 371 No. 1s on the Billboard charts. Idol's biggest successes: season-one victor Clarkson and season four's Carrie Underwood, who have combined sales of 22 million albums. Even some of the nonwinners have thrived: the oft-cited Jennifer Hudson, who came in seventh on season three but won an Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007, Chris Daughtry, who has notched sales of 7 million albums, and season-five runner-up Katharine McPhee, who stars on NBC's Smash.
Idol's latest rags-to-riches fairy tale? Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, whose single "Home," used as the U.S. women's gymnastics team's unofficial theme song during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is now No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with sales of more than 2.8 million tracks, according to his label, Interscope. His debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon, released in November, has sold 377,073 copies.
Following a platinum-certified debut by season 10 winner and country crooner Scotty McCreery, Phillips' success is the product of a realignment on the music side that clearly is working, with Interscope Geffen A&M chairman and in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine providing the artist development as the series progresses. With Universal Music handling distribution and marketing, the show, more than ever, offers a legitimate launchpad to insta-success. "Idol changed drastically when Jimmy came on," says the show's longtime arranger and associate musical director Michael Orland. "In the old days, it was like musical jump rope where the contestants would do a different style every week. Inevitably, everybody had at least one horrible performance. Jimmy said, 'Let's get these people to sing who they are.' "
For years, the Idol brain trust of Darnell, Lythgoe, Warwick, Fuller and Fremantle's Cecile Frot-Coutaz (since promoted from running North American operations to CEO of Fremantle worldwide and succeeded in the U.S. by Trish Kinane, who readily admits, "There are a lot of voices in this show, but it works") had insisted that the show's real draw were the contestants, not the judges, who have minimal contact with the finalists and aren't given a vote past the audition rounds. Says Darnell: "If we have a bad year in talent, no matter how good the judges are, it won't work. So ultimately, the audience is coming and staying for the contestants."
But it seems that as the seasons have passed, so has the reliance on talent alone as a draw. At its launch, the show featured unknown judges save for a then career-stagnant Paula Abdul. Today, the focus is squarely on the high-powered panelists (season two's Clay Aiken recently said so, telling Billboard, "I don't even know if they remember there are contestants anymore"), who aren't critiquing scores of would-be pop stars solely out of the goodness of their hearts but looking to further their brands and promote their own projects in tandem. (Even Iovine jumped on the bandwagon with his high-end audio line Beats By Dr. Dre, whose headphones and speakers are featured prominently on the show.)
And the panel is being paid handsomely for it, with Carey, 43, earning a salary of $18 million, according to sources, Minaj pocketing $12 million, and less for Urban and Jackson. Somewhat shockingly, Darnell insists that despite the divas' extra handlers, glam-squad members and security detail, the show's production costs, which THR has estimated run in the vicinity of $2 million an episode, have not increased. Still, the hefty sums (which include host Ryan Seacrest's $15 million-a-year deal) don't always pay off. For every Christina Aguilera -- a bargain at $12 million a year for The Voice -- you have a one-term fail like Idol's Ellen DeGeneres, or a Lopez or X Factor's Britney Spears, the latter two who commanded $15 million but ultimately added little flavor or value to an already-stagnant TV formula. (Although it should be noted that Lopez helped stabilize ratings at first with an initial uptick: The show averaged 24.2 million viewers in January 2011, her first season as judge; compared with season nine's average -- 22.9 million -- season 10's numbers were flat.) In the case of pop star Spears, people didn't even tune in to watch the muted train wreck.
On the other hand, the exposure can do wonders for a career that's waning or an artist coming off of a long leave. Says Carey, who's finishing her 11th album with plans to launch it during Idol: "This show is such a massive, popular entity, it does help people promote their music, and at the end of the day, that's the most important thing. … But this is a big departure for me because, for the most part, either I had nothing or I was my own boss."
All three newcomers say they had to be "convinced" to join Idol. New Zealand-born Urban, 45, a handsome, one-season judge on Australia's The Voice who's married to Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman, had a been-there-done-that attitude toward the TV-judging shtick. But in the end, he decided he had wisdom left to share. "I like helping artists get rid of the cheesy crap around them that they haven't yet figured out they don't need," he says. "I wish I had more of that. I had to learn a lot of it myself."
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As for Carey? "I was on the fence about the whole thing," she tells THR. "I got approached by all the shows." Ultimately, she said yes to Idol with the urging of her husband, America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon on rival network NBC. "He said I should do it because it's the top, it's the cream of the crop. And I felt like, 'Do the show that's produced massive stars who have had major careers.' " On the panel, Carey serves as the music industry lifer but says she generally focuses on vocal chops. "I know everyone's like, 'We can't have schmaltzy answers,' " she says. "Well guess what? Some people still want to be inspired. Some people need to have that kind of validation and to feel like, if this person did it, then I can. And I do have one of those stories."
Minaj also consulted those close to her. "I had a lot of talks with people -- my family, my best friends, my label, Lil Wayne, management and then the producers," she says. In the end, it was Darnell who helped sway her. Adds the 30-year-old: "He was so lovable and made me feel so comfortable and confident. He kept saying, 'I promise we're going to protect you; you're going to love it, we're a big family.' "
Among Minaj's concerns: her cred in the rap world, for one. As an artist signed to Cash Money Records -- home to her mentor Lil Wayne, Drake, Jay Sean and DJ Khaled and a label that has sold more than 78 million albums since its founding in 1991 -- she points to "a judgmental culture in hip-hop," where "sometimes you are afraid of being too famous because it's almost, like, is that even cool? Being that accessible, someone you see on TV every week? I never pictured myself as that type of person. I'm still surprised that I decided to do it."
Probably not as surprised as Idol's incoming diva Carey was to hear of Minaj's hiring in September. According to multiple sources, the singer -- who has sold 200 million albums worldwide since her 1990 debut and is mom to 20-month-old twins Monroe and Moroccan (they've yet to visit the Idol set because "they're a little big now; they run around, and it can be dangerous," she says) -- was promised top billing as Idol's queen bee, with a J.Lo-style focus on her pedigree as a vocalist, songwriter and producer. And deservedly so: Carey's songs are among the most-performed by Idol contestants, the vast majority of whom fall far short of her five-octave range.
If there was to be a fourth judge hired, an insider tells THR, Carey was "pretty much assured" it would not be another female. Enter Minaj, part Harajuku riot girl, part cartoon caricature, all curves and sizzle and a hitmaker in her own right who boasts endorsements by Pepsi, M.A.C Cosmetics and Adidas.
And, as Carey saw for herself firsthand during the North Carolina auditions in October, Minaj also has a bit of a temper. In a grainy cell phone video, beamed around the world by TMZ and countless online outlets, the two judges are shown getting into a heated exchange, during which Minaj seemingly calls Carey "your royal f--ing highness" while Carey complains of being subjected to the tantrum of "a 3-year-old." Those were the milder epithets. According to Carey, speaking with Barbara Walters on The View the morning after the footage leaked, there might have been a threat -- possibly verbal, definitely perceived.
"I could think of at least one other person that shows more cleavage and skin than me." — Nicki Minaj
Looking back on the incident, which began as an impassioned disagreement over an audition, is not exactly a point of pride for any of the involved parties. When asked about the exchange, Carey says she has "yet to figure out" why the situation escalated as it did. "Sometimes things get heated for their own reasons," she evades, adding, "I don't think the panel has an issue." Minaj flat-out refuses to discuss it. (Worth noting: She also had a war of words with Tyler after he remarked that, as an Idol judge, Minaj "would have sent [Bob Dylan] to a cornfield"; the rapper interpreted the comment as racist and went on the offensive on Twitter, writing, "Why? black? rapper? what? go f-- yourself and worry about yourself babe. ... Lets [sic] make [Steven] a shirt that says 'No Coloreds Allowed' then escort him down 2 Barbara Walters so he can tell [her] how he was threatened w/guns.")
Warwick says he was "quite surprised" at the Minaj-Carey altercation "and how it took off the way it did." The TV veteran, a friend of Lythgoe's going back to their childhood in Liverpool during the 1960s, found the tussle "unnerving," telling THR: "I'm a family man with three kids. If they acted like that, it would be, 'Upstairs to bed!' Personally, I'm not over the moon that it happened. But if you asked me, as a professional, is it good for the show? The answer would probably be yes."
It's precisely that school of thought that prompts Idol fans, pundits and casual viewers alike to wonder whether the production itself is responsible for leaking the fight. To that, Lythgoe, who is seen in the one-minute clip trying to defuse the situation, has a laugh. "I don't think I would've done it so far away from the beginning of the season," he says. "Plus, it was about the judges and not the contestants, and I'm totally against that. So, no."
For good measure, Lythgoe assures that, unlike Australia's broadcast of American Idol, which is playing up the "War of the Divas" storyline (see sidebar) in a promo, he has no plans to use the footage in advance of or during the season.
Further, since everyone who works on Idol has to sign a confidentiality agreement that states in plain language that any video or audio of the show is proprietary material, an internal investigation was launched and, while the culprit never was identified, the producers came to the conclusion that it was shot from a monitor most likely by a local day hire in Charlotte, N.C. It's a problem that persists even at Hollywood Week, where a production assistant abruptly was fired and tossed from the premises Dec. 15 for snapping a photo from the side of the stage.
Darnell downplays the media ruckus. "People were talking about the way Simon Cowell and Paula feuded for years," he says. "Let's be honest, big shows get people talking, so any little thing that happens becomes controversial." Asked whether he would want Cowell back on the Idol panel, Darnell hesitates before answering: "I love Simon. I think he is an incredible judge, and that's an interesting question, but I like where he's at on X Factor."
But fight or no fight, the point persists: Idol is a family show with a strong Southern voting block that is notoriously conservative; will its audience embrace an envelope-pushing rapper with a larger-than-life persona? Even Minaj herself admits that when prodded, "I am scary and intimidating. I definitely demand respect. I'm also a sweet person. I'm a loving person. But I don't want to be f--ed with."
To that end, one needn't think back all that far -- to the 2012 Grammys, for instance, when Minaj presented an exorcism-themed performance of her song "Roman Holiday" after walking the red carpet wearing a fire-red cloak and accompanied by a pope lookalike, or to any of her videos -- to wonder: Would Minaj have to tone down her outre look to fit the Idol mold? "I could think of at least one other person that shows more cleavage and skin than me," jabs Minaj, clearly insulted by the insinuation and rolling her inchlong false lashes in the direction of the dressing room two doors down: Carey's.
"The perception of Nicki is unfair, really," defends Warwick. "Everyone thought she was just a daft, half-educated rapper. But she has got a heart, and it's starting to show, along with her intelligence, which threw some of us as well. And her eloquence and her grasp of what's going on. I think she'll surprise a lot of people." (But it must be said that, according to Idol staffers, Minaj has been late to the set every day.)
On the days this reporter visited Idol's "Hollywood" set, everyone was -- no surprise -- on their best behavior and looked to be getting along famously. Minaj, seated on the far left (in a new twist, the judges change position daily so that the panel "doesn't become staid," explains Darnell) and wearing an unexpected pair of bright red fuzzy slippers with pom-poms along with her form-fitting outfit that seemed to match her own description of herself as sweet, caring, nurturing, smart and sassy, surveyed the final picks -- one a Muslim contestant who could easily double for a post-conversion Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam and has been nicknamed (or "Nicki-named") "The Turbanator" (she refers to her favorites as "my darling"). In the final leg of a long journey that saw 100 contestants cut down to 40, she delivered a speech that was downright inspired.
As Warwick recalls: "Nicki said, 'You've seen the heartbreak of the kids who have been turned away today. … I've put it into perspective how much this meant to them. You are the lucky ones. You are the ones who are here. Don't throw it away. Don't treat it like it's not important. This is a rocket ship to stardom if you can ride the rocket.' She put it better than any script could have been written." (Asked whether he's seen Minaj and Carey interact at all, Warwick answers, "Not a great deal, no.")
For her part, Carey, alongside Jackson, seems to be relishing the role of seasoned industry player, while Urban is described by the producers as the voice of "sanity" on the panel. Indeed, his take on why it's worth the judges' time to lead these wide-eyed hopefuls into the murky waters of the music business when albums no longer sell like they used to and, thanks to rampant piracy, singles and streams have yet to make up the difference, is as pragmatic as it comes. "The business is changing right now," says Urban. "And the beauty of it is that the power is going back to the artist -- they have far more creative control, more ability to get their art out and find their audience on their terms."
(Ever the dogged optimist, Jackson, 56, name-checks the year's top sellers: "Mumford & Sons is making noise selling 600,000 records the first week, Taylor Swift did 1.2 million, Adele is going on 25 million worldwide and eight Grammys. Success still happens.")
Adds Urban: "Plus, the likelihood of actually making money, strangely enough, is greater today than back when artists got enslaved into record company deals. But ultimately, it shouldn't be about fame or money. It should be your calling. This is what you do. You don't have a choice."
Lofty words to live by, but you could say the same of American Idol, which remains the network's shining jewel by sheer power of its numbers. There's not a question of whether the show should continue, it simply does. The goal at this juncture -- after 11 years, some 150 finalists, 10 judges and hundreds of thousands of auditions, not to mention those other shows nipping at Idol's heel (both Lythgoe and Warwick insist they never watch their rivals, even for homework's sake) -- is very much the same as it was back in 2002: to up the game.
"Competition does make you pay attention more," says Seacrest. "Whether it be these performers who are competing against each other, or us looking within our genre of television, it does make you get better. You're forced to improve."
Adds Jackson: "I believe in the process. I think there's at least three or four of these kids that have huge careers ahead of them who will go on until they decide to stop. I think we're the only show of its kind that can say that."
For a daily dose of American Idol news, check out THR's Idol Worship blog.
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