Chris Brown, Adam Lambert and a $500,000 Performance: AMAs EP on What to Expect Sunday

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In an interview with THR on the eve of the "American Music Awards," executive producer Larry Klein talks pricey productions and controversial figures. Plus: will the stage be able to handle Nicki Minaj and David Guetta's opening number?

It’s become a sort of semi-annual punchline for the music industry -- or any entertainment company putting on an event at downtown Los Angeles’ Nokia Theater, for that matter. The venue, a brand new 7,100-seat concrete structure wired for the most sophisticated of TV broadcasts and the most raucous of concerts -- and with phone giant Nokia in its name -- has the worst cell reception in L.A. It’s a complaint American Music Awards executive producer Larry Klein is all too familiar with. “More than anything else I hear from artists, it’s ‘I can't get service in here!’ Since the day we moved in,” Klein laughs. “It cracks me up!”

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It was back in 2007, before artists found it necessary to tweet their every move, that the AMAs moved in. It followed many years at the stately Shrine auditorium a couple miles down the road, where, in its earliest days Klein recalls show creator Dick Clark telling the likes of John Denver, Helen Reddy, or Olivia Newton-John, “’OK, you wear a blue suit, you've got a guitar, you get a three-piece band…’”

Needless to say, times have changed. Now, the fan-voted celebration, which first aired 39 years ago, features many of music’s hottest acts on a stage all their own, where each individual artist is allowed the freedom to tailor the production to their own desire with few limitations on staging or an aesthetic theme. “Nothing is duplicated,” Klein declares. “No light, no screen content, no set, everyone has their own look.”

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Take, for example, this year’s opener Nicki Minaj and David Guetta. While Klein won’t reveal the exact theme of their elaborate set piece, it is apparently “so massive” that the production feared catastrophe. “They were afraid it was going to fall through the floor, that's how heavy it is,” Klein tells the Hollywood Reporter. “Nobody has ever had that kind of set-up onstage other than being in concert, although for a tour, I don't know how it would travel from city to city. We'll pull it off.”

You could consider Klein the rebel of music TV shows. The more he’s told no -- be it by the stage crew, Dick Clark Productions execs, or the network -- “the more I get excited about it,” he says. “I want every single performance to push the envelope.”

This year should be no exception as the AMAs has lined up an impressive count of 18 performances (one year Klein did 20, “I almost killed everyone,” he cracks) including the latest hits by Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Maroon 5 with Christina Aguilera, and LMFAO, who will close out the show with a six minute-plus performance of “Party Rock Anthem” followed by “Sexy and I Know It.” Absent, however, are perennials Rihanna, who’s out on a European tour, and Beyonce, who is pregnant. Lady Gaga is also out of the country, although maybe their exclusion is a blessing considering the costs associated with their elaborate productions.

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This year’s show is a budget buster if ever there was one. A single performance on the AMAs can cost more than $500,000 to put on. The record companies chip in, seeing the TV time as a massive promotional opportunity for their artists to get in front of more than 10 million people in one shot, but, needless to say, it’s not like the old days.

“It's very expensive to do this show,” says Klein. “The labels do help out, but they’ve had to put a cap on it. I want 18 mini-shows within my show; that costs money.” It doesn’t help matters that, adds Klein, “prices are out of control… I've been saying for the last month-and-a-half, ‘Doesn't anybody know that we’re in a bad economy?’ Thank god DCP allows me the finances to do this because all the artists talk about are our productions.”

Indeed, given the freedom and financial support to promote their latest albums or singles days before the holiday shopping season kicks off has made the AMAs a coveted booking for superstar acts, most of whom will be seated in the front row on Sunday night (a sneak-peek at the seating arrangement had Bieber, his girlfriend Selena Gomez, Perry and Lopez positioned next to each other in the theater’s prime spots).

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But with music’s share of controversial characters, the show’s producers can also be put in the precarious position of defending art, oftentimes after a performance, as in the case of Adam Lambert, who got into a heap of hot water when he spontaneously kissed his male bass player during a 2009 performance (the American Idol alum returns this year as a presenter), and sometimes before. That may be the case this year with Chris Brown, who days prior to his appearance on the show, went on a Twitter tirade addressing still lingering public resentment stemming from his 2008 Grammy weekend assault of then girlfriend Rihanna. It was also revealed late Friday that a sex tape involving the singer and Basketball Wives LA star Draya Michele is making the rounds.

Says Kline: “I like Chris an awful lot and I respect his creativity. I wanted him on the show badly this year, and I fought for it on many levels. Of course, no one could condone what happened years ago -- it was a terrible thing -- but everybody deserves a second chance and this man has had a great year musically.” He applies similar reason to Lambert, who ABC had reportedly banned after the 2009 performance, telling THR, "Did [Adam] get carried away? Absolutely. Was he regrettful afterwards? Of course he was, but it’s over... We’d absolutely have him back.”

Ultimately, adds Kline, who’s worked on all but one AMAs since it premiered in 1973, it comes down to the fact that Brown is “a phenomenal entertainer… Dick Clark created the AMAs as an entertainment show with awards in them. He told me a hundred years ago, ‘I'm a TV producer, I'm supposed to entertain people.’ I still have that in my head and that's what I do. It may sound terrible, but I can't even worry about ratings. I can only do my best, hope that I have terrific talent, that there's enough promotion and a buzz and that people tune in.”

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Worth noting: last year’s broadcast drew 11.6 million viewers, down from 14 million in 2009, and the smallest audience in AMAs history. But at least Klein can count one less thing to stress about: it will be a lot harder for an artist to pull off a rant of any kind from the Nokia Theater. Maybe that spotty cell service isn’t such a drawback, after all.