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Secrets Behind 'American Idol's' Incredible Comeback

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Issue 19 Cover American Idol
Art Streiber

For the first time, and in dramatic detail, the players recount in the new Hollywood Reporter the crisis at hand after Simon Cowell quit, who was on their first shortlist of judges and the meetings that led to this season’s Dream Team.

When the house lights came up at L.A. Live's Nokia Theatre on May 26, 2010, the night of the Season 9 finale, there was a widely held belief in the entertainment world that American Idol was going down. Gone was the show's star judge, Simon Cowell, who had announced his departure four months earlier; its experiment with a four-person panel, which included daytime host Ellen DeGeneres and songwriter Kara DioGuardi, had ostensibly failed (both would exit the show within the next three months); and viewers less than enthused with the year's crop of contestants had started tuning out. With ratings tumbling 18 percent on finale night and giant question marks looming on the horizon, the members of the Idol brain trust -- which include creator Simon Fuller, FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Fox president of alternative programming Mike Darnell and executive producers Nigel Lythgoe (brought back after a two-season leave) and Ken Warwick, along with judge Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest -- had their work cut out for them.

How do you even begin to consider tweaking a program that's consistently brought in a weekly audience of more than 20 million viewers? The winning formula turned out to be a music trifecta: pop diva Jennifer Lopez, rock star Steven Tyler and record executive Jimmy Iovine, the combination of which resuscitated the show that remains a ratings powerhouse unlike any other series of the past decade. Of course, getting there was no song. For the first time, the stars and makers of American Idol reveal how its new identity came to be.

MAY 2010

MIKE DARNELL We started thinking about Season 10 about a month prior to the finale, and it was scary. To be frank, we weren't coming off our best season, and while the finale did fine, and it was a lovely tribute to Simon Cowell, that goodbye made it feel like the end of an era. You're like, "Well, where do we go now?"

CECILE FROT-COUTAZ Everybody was saying: "I wouldn't want to be in your position. … I wouldn't want your job right now." There was also a lot of pressure internally. Like, "What are you gonna do? What's your plan?"

DARNELL And almost immediately, the press started in with, "Simon's leaving, and the show's having a bad year; it's not going to work again." People estimated it would be down 20 to 40 percent. It starts to get to you after awhile. And so we had to bear down and just say, "We gotta put together the best roster we can and hope that the talent's good." And we started our search.

SIMON FULLER My perspective was: Simon is a tough act to follow. You can't try and copy him or bring in someone to replace him, so we have to look in a different direction, a different spirit, a different feeling for the show.

FROT-COUTAZ I got really paralyzed because I was thinking of it as replacing him. You start making lists, like, "OK, what are his attributes? What makes Cowell work?" And you realize that you can't find that person because it doesn't exist. So I was stuck and thought, "This is mission impossible." Then sometime in June, I realized that was the wrong approach. We have to find a group of people who will be credible, have good chemistry and be entertaining.

FULLER I was thinking we needed someone who's more famous than Simon but also we had to rethink the show. We needed to kind of reignite Idol, give it a new beginning. With Simon leaving, we had to bring back the spirit we may have lost and also instill a new element of energy and fun, so the next important decision was bringing back Nigel Lythgoe. He's an absolutely brilliant producer and a dear friend who's been with me from Day 1 and someone I trust implicitly.

NIGEL LYTHGOE My feeling was that you have to go in a new direction. Whoever replaced Cowell would've been a pale imitation, so I certainly didn't want to go that way. After being welcomed back by the production team, I was also informed that, rather than having a leader -- as there was when I was sort of running the ship -- it was now done by committee, and that committee being Mike Darnell, Cecile, Simon Fuller and Ken Warwick. So it was an interesting first few months.