‘American Idol’: Behind the Scenes of TV’s Big Gamble

Michael Becker/Fox/PictureGroup

America’s No. 1 show is undergoing a huge face-lift in a fight to retain audience — and credibility. The changes? Radical. At stake? Everything.

There’s a saying in the music business that you’re only as good as your last hit. If that were true of television, then American Idol might have been dropped after last season.

With falling ratings, to the tune of 9 percent, lack of star power among 2010’s contestant talent pool, the awkward addition of Ellen DeGeneres to the judges’ panel and the Jan. 11 announcement of Simon Cowell’s departure all contributing to a lackluster ninth year on the air — the first significant chink in the venerable $7 billion brand’s armor — the Fox show remains the country’s No. 1 primetime draw, though it is showing its age. Literally: The average Idol viewer is 45, significantly older than the screaming teens it’s often associated with.

But rather than slowly putting the program out to pasture, Idol’s creators, producers, sponsors, and, yes, host Ryan Seacrest are about to reinvest their resources, manpower and creative energy into its biggest makeover yet, with judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler filling the seats vacated by Cowell, DeGeneres and songwriter Kara DioGuardi, a new night, a cozy, multitiered partnership with Universal Music Group;  and renewed focus on the show’s original premise: the search for a superstar.

Like the thousands of contestants who have held their collective breath as reality stared them in the face and assessed their talent — and the turnout for these Season 10 auditions was as strong as in past years — Idol also will be judged by the American public, and in order to ensure the show advances to the next round, it has taken a long, hard look in the mirror. What does the behemoth’s brass ultimately see? A need for more transparency in the star-making process, a demand for online integration by way of votes and bonus content and a call for credibility as Idol flops increasingly outnumber its successes (though the few that have broken through — Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry — did so in a big way). It also hopes, with acknowledged futility, that one picture will fade: Cowell’s smug mug, which, after nearly a decade on the air, has been inextricably tied to the show’s very existence.

This realignment is not without risk. Sure, Idol’s ratings (which averaged around 24 million viewers during its last run), even with the recent slump, are the envy of rival networks. Also, executives at Fox, Fremantle, CKX and 19 Entertainment have touted for several years running that if the show’s viewership continues to trend as it has (an average audience erosion of 10 percent per year), it would still stake its claim on the top spot well into the next decade.

All these parties play key roles in the production, deal-making and upkeep of the Idol franchise, not to mention take part in its profits — ad revenue alone has accounted for $4.4 billion in revenue since 2005, with such sponsors as Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T adding another $50 million-$70 million to the Idol coffers every year — but how long can they rest on their laurels with Dancing With the Stars nipping at the heels and Mark Burnett creeping up from behind?


New set
The band, led by musical director Ray Chew, will relocate along with other modifications. A change of more than 40% would allow it to be eligible for an Emmy. 

Original songs
For the first time, contestants may sing songs written by proven hitmakers.

Online voting?
Details are still being finalized on a method where viewers can vote online.

No one is resting — quite the opposite. To reenergize the show, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe was brought back after a two-year break. The last time he was barking orders backstage at Idol, David Cook and David Archuleta were vying for the Season 7 title and splitting 97 million votes between them — the most the show had registered until that point. “Nigel is someone who has a proprietary passion for the show,” CKX CEO Mike Ferrel says. “He was there when Simon Fuller conceived it, and his sole desire is to turn out a great TV product.”

Lythgoe’s return is very much about trying to relive Idol’s glory days. “It was obvious Nigel was missing,” says Gail Berman, the former president of Fox who was one of Idol’s original champions at the network and played a hands-on role in its first four years on the air. “He’s a very good producer, and I think the show was lacking his leadership. Now that he’s back, Idol will be better for it.” Other observers are less diplomatic. “The good news is, the show was such a disaster last season that they don’t have to do much to improve it,” says Steve Lillywhite, a respected producer (U2, Jason Mraz) and longtime Idol fan who joins the chorus of dissatisfied customers still scratching their heads at 2010’s snoozy contest. To wit, Season 9’s Lee DeWyze has only sold 98,000 copies of his debut album, the weakest showing from an Idol winner yet.

“What really tainted last year’s competition was Simon announcing he was leaving in the beginning of the season,” says a high-ranking Idol insider, referring to the 2010 winter meeting of the Television Critics Association, where official word first came of Cowell’s departure. “It was reflected in his demeanor the entire season.” Adds another source, “It turned into the Simon Cowell farewell hour — it became all about him.”

The biannual confab known as TCA returns to Pasadena this month, and Fox will again use the stage to tout its biggest moneymaker with an elaborate presentation Jan. 11. Highlighting what Idol has done right will be an oft-heard refrain as the network rolls out the red carpet on the show’s newly polished image — and don’t be surprised if amnesia suddenly sets in when it comes to last year’s missteps. To the contrary, you can expect plenty of self-congratulations over Idol not just being the highest-rated show in the past 10 years but one of the biggest successes in the history of American television.

Indeed, to use another music-biz idiom, Idol is turning everything up to 11 on its 10th anniversary — from the set, which is undergoing substantial modification, to the speed of the elimination process (rather than a top 24 semifinal round, it may go directly to 12 contestants — or 15; producers are still mulling it over), the star power of its new judges, the voting procedure (plans are being discussed for online integration that would include bonus content and the ability to vote with a click), an Idol mansion (“Nigel was keen on it,” says a source) and especially the music, which, more than ever, will truly take center stage.

Tasked with identifying, assessing and developing the Idol hopefuls is Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M Records, a veteran producer with a longlist of credits, including game-changing albums by the likes of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and who is hailed for discovering and nurturing Gwen Stefani, Eminem and Lady Gaga, to name a few superstars who have benefited from his guidance. Iovine has assembled a “dream team” of producer-songwriters, including Rodney Jerkins (Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston), Ron Fair (Christina Aguilera, Pussycat Dolls), Timbaland (Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake) and Alex Da Kid (Rihanna, Eminem), among others, to work with the finalists on finding the right match of song, then arranging and producing the musical accompaniment — a prerecorded track augmented by a live band — specifically for each contestant.

“We’ll make sure the contestant is comfortable with the song,” Iovine explains. “We’re not going to ask a country singer to sing an R&B song, or an R&B singer to do Led Zeppelin. If the theme is ’80s or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, each song will be customized to that contestant.” Steering Idol further away from its glorified-karaoke rep, the show will, for the first time, not solely rely on covers but feature originals written by proven hitmakers. “When you’re picking a song out of a hat, it’s not necessarily going to showcase your voice properly,” says Jerkins, who worked with the contestants in December in Las Vegas, where they sang Beatles songs as solo acts and in groups. “We’ve had great conversations with Jimmy, Simon Fuller and Nigel about how these kids need to get the right songs that fit their voices.”

There has also been talk of introducing a music video element, where contestants are tested on their acting skills, how they incorporate backup dancers and their ability to replicate iconic video images. “With music breaking on the Internet, the visual aspect of any pop star is huge,” Alex Da Kid says. (Fox will not confirm or comment on any changes.)

Another big priority for Iovine and UMG, especially newly installed CEO Lucian Grainge — a longtime pal of Fuller’s and the executive who led the charge to secure the recording rights to Idol (licensed by 19 Entertainment, the company Fuller founded in 1985 and sold 20 years later to Robert Sillerman’s CKX for an estimated $192 million) — is to get music to the people quickly. Where Sony, which has released music by 25 Idol alums (half of which are no longer on the roster), would typically take the summer to work with the winner and runners-up and have an album in stores sometime in the fall, this new era of Idol music is all about immediacy.

“The sands of time are slipping through the hourglass, and you want to capitalize while the public is so engaged in the story of winning or losing,” says Ron Fair, chairman of Geffen Records, who describes his fellow producers’ roles as “elves” to “Jimmy’s Santa” (when he’s not calling Iovine “rabbi”). “Normally with a new artist, the world isn’t waiting.”

What this means is zero delay in bringing the fully produced, radio-ready records to market, artist development on the spot, audience research as-you-go and the most surefire way, if ever there was one, to formulate the perfect breakout act and guarantee some modicum of success, even if that just means littering the Billboard or iTunes charts with Idols (eligibility is still in question). “We spend time with every single finalist and the same way we would in an A&R meeting with a prospective artist,” Fair continues. “We really assess the situation: Who are we talking to? What are their strengths and weaknesses? So we have a real picture of what this person could turn into.”


All of these efforts clearly put the focus back on the contestants, despite the brouhaha over the judges this past summer, where every week brought a new rumored replacement — from Elton John to Chris Isaak to Howard Stern. “The importance of the judges to the ratings is vastly overstated,” says Richard Rushfield, a seasoned Idol reporter whose new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, hits stores Jan. 18, a day before Season 10 premieres. “I think Simon Cowell was hugely important in building the show, but as the years go on, it’s as much about the talent. The press attention on the judges is outside their importance.”

Indeed, even THR’s own poll shows that 83 percent of Idol viewers tune in to see the contestants, not hear the judges. But it’s worth noting that one in two considered Cowell’s comments the greatest influence in their endorsement of a finalist, and with his exit, no one’s sure whether those loyalists will continue to tune in. Still, sink or swim, you can bet the blame or credit will lie squarely on the judges’ shoulders, which is another reason this trio has to work.

“The show is so big that it’s the easy target,” Berman says. “But I learned over the years that you’d have to make a lot of mistakes to destroy it.”

But it’s exactly the fear of making another mistake (like hiring DeGeneres) that kept the rumor mill churning for months. According to insiders, the search for the perfect panel of judges reached the highest levels at Fox, including News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, who took a more-than-active interest. “It became incredibly political,” a source says. “Everyone was so worried about their job and the franchise, no one wanted to step forward and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ ”

Says Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America and an executive producer on Idol: “There was enormous pressure, but you don’t replace Simon, because the moment you say that is when you’re going to head in the wrong direction. You want to deliver something where people don’t compare but are satisfied by what you give them; that was the challenge of the Simon exercise.”

Marquee names were the order of the day — Lythgoe was pushing for Elton John, Harry Connick Jr. was being seriously considered, Justin Timberlake’s name got thrown around. At the same time, bold and even straight-up wacky ideas were encouraged. At one point, the show’s producers were considering a sort of all-star Idol, where past winners and select finalists would compete against each other, allowing someone like Jennifer Hudson a second chance. The idea was dropped when they couldn’t get enough Idol alums to even consider a do-over, never mind agree to it.

In truth, the show’s best move seemed to be locking down Jennifer Lopez, who had been in talks with Fuller as early as April and was a clear front-runner from the get-go. “She’s worldly, streetwise and so lovable,” Fair says. “She’s like Jenny from around the block … an incredible woman with tremendous insight, having been a movie star, a recording star and a mom. She’ll also bring a glamour and elegance to the show where people will wonder: ‘What’s she wearing? What’s her hair look like?’ That’s exciting, too.”

A Season 10 contestant who made it through Hollywood Week described Lopez as “rigidly honest but also supportive and caring … like what Kara was trying to be: eloquent, nurturing, loving but also critical and professional. She had a great balance between being a judge and being a teacher.”

By all accounts, the kinder, gentler Idol judging panel is due mostly to Lopez’s softer touch, but the negotiations to get her in that swivel leather chair were anything but. “It was absolutely miserable,” an insider reveals. “We lost Jennifer at one point when one of her agents tried to persuade her to do a different show. An emergency conference was set up with Fox chairman of entertainment Peter Rice, president of alternative programming Mike Darnell, Fuller, Jennifer, her husband Marc Anthony and manager Benny Medina and several lawyers. To say it was very tense would be a polite way of putting it.” The show used as a negotiating tool? Simon Cowell’s The X Factor, for which she was approached, set to launch this fall on Fox. Lopez ended up with a reported $12 million paycheck. (It’s worth noting that Idol actually saved money by cutting Cowell’s $35 million salary.)

Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler came to the table a little later by way of Darnell. At 62 years old, he’s certainly not an obvious choice, and plenty who have worked with him might contend that he’s the resident diva. With a history of drug abuse, which caused one former associate to remark, “his mind is so damaged, I don’t know how he’s going to do this job,” Tyler also has had a reputation for being erratic and difficult. (A Tyler source points out that he’s been sober for a year.) In the past five years alone, he’s retained four different managers and five publicists. On set, a crew member notes that he requires more touch-ups and breaks than Jackson or Lopez, and that Tyler is also “the quietest” of the bunch. Says Jerkins, “He could be more stern with the artists.”

Then again, moods, especially a rock star’s, fluctuate, and THR’s inside mole describes the Hollywood Week Tyler this way: “Steven was crazy! He was bouncing around, yelling, giggling; he was a ball of fun. Like Paula with less composure and more spontaneity.”

Of course, when it comes to music cred, few can match the reign Tyler and his band have had over rock radio. And as a singer, Tyler is nothing short of iconic, proven time and again, even as recently as last week’s Kennedy Center Honors, where he blew the proverbial roof off the joint with a Beatles medley.

As for Randy Jackson, who slid into Simon’s old seat for the auditions and, presumably, the rest of the season, Lythgoe had hinted at a meaner, sassier edge to the beloved producer, but according to Jerkins and several others, “It’s pretty much the same Randy,” though all concur that he’s been handed the unofficial “head judge” baton. With one caveat, says the contestant, “J.Lo is in control.”

So if all three are taking the nice approach, who’s the new Simon? Jerkins suggests Iovine has stepped into the role naturally. “Jimmy is the realest decision maker on the show,” he says. “He tells it like it is; this person either has it or they don’t.”

Fair likens it to a scenario broadcast vets Fox and Fremantle can relate to. “It’s kind of like the guy who plays a policeman on TV versus [LAPD] chief of police [William] Bratton,” he says. “Jimmy is the real cop. He’s not the guy who’s pretending, and in that respect, his method is incredibly fascinating.” 


Jimmy Iovine
The veteran “record man” is uniquely qualified to judge new talent, says fellow exec and producer Ron Fair. “U2, Eminem, Dr. Dre, No Doubt, Lady Gaga … through his whole career, Jimmy has an incredible feel for music that’s commercial and artistically potent.”

Nigel Lythgoe
After two years away from Idol, the executive producer wasted no time reasserting his authority. “It was Nigel’s way or the highway,” says a Season 10 contestant who made it through Hollywood Week. “He had a clear agenda and enforced it strictly.”

Ken Warwick
A showrunner for the U.K.’s Pop Idol, he has been with the franchise since 2000, earning eight Emmy noms for his work as EP. “Simon Fuller, Ken, Nigel … these guys are song-and-dance men; it’s like vaudeville,” Fair says. “There’s so much love for this show.”

Mike Darnell
As Fox’s president of alternative programming, he was a vocal Idol cheerleader from the very beginning. “It was a fantastic moment in time,” former network boss Gail Berman says. “There are those shows that changed everything and this was one of them.”

The buzz words around the Idol dome this season? Transparency, referring to the recording and star-making process, and interactivity, with online voting and new initiatives designed to spread the word through Facebook and Twitter, not limit access, as had been the case. Keeping the contestants’ off-set lives off camera, and even disallowing their use of social networking sites before and during the competition, was always presented under the guise of “fairness,” and legitimately so — if one contestant has 100,000 followers on Twitter and another only a fraction of that amount, is it any surprise which one will advance? Then again, what’s to say the lower number and one stellar performance wouldn’t motivate the audience to vote for the underdog? Taylor Hicks, anyone?

These are questions the producers grapple with, but at the core their ambition is to create a great TV show, and in past years the success of the emerging musical artists was, in a sense, secondary. Says Berman: “Every decision we made was aimed at making a successful television show. We never looked at it through any other prism. It wasn’t our job.”

Indeed, when you do the numbers, a successful album might generate a couple million dollars in profit, but that’s a downright paltry sum compared with what Idol makes in one episode when the going rate for a 30-second spot costs nearly $500,000. “It’s still a powerhouse,” says Aaron Cohen, executive vp and chief negotiating officer at Horizon Media.

It’s a wonder, then, why so much emphasis is being put on a creative process whose end result might only have a marginal impact on the vast entertainment landscape. After all, the music business has depreciated considerably since Idol launched in 2002. Sony’s biggest Idol successes Clarkson and Underwood sold a combined 22 million albums, but it was a different time. On the other hand, X Factor’s success rate is even lower (Leona Lewis is one international success story in seven seasons so far), yet it’s the most popular show in the U.K.

One explanation, says a high-ranking Idol insider, is that talent discovery was the show’s initial mission and entire raison d’etre. “Fuller’s original idea was to create a new music star, not a hit show,” the source says. “Weirdly, the hit show came and dominated the agenda, as did Cowell, and now that he’s gone, it can return to its true purpose.”

It’s a balancing act. “The producers have to reel us in sometimes,” Jerkins admits. “They are always about the TV show, telling us, ‘This is what America wants,’ and we have to be mindful of that. We want the TV show to do really well, but we also want to locate a star — that’s the reason we’re a part of this TV show.”

Then again, power in the music business has its privileges. For instance, during a day of shooting in Las Vegas, one Fox executive noticed Iovine wearing a Springsteen shirt. Typically, anyone who’s on camera is asked to avoid wearing anything with a logo or copyrighted image. When a staffer mentioned the hassle in clearing its use, Iovine took out his cell phone, called the Boss direct and got verbal approval.

And whereas in Idol’s early years, music executives pooh-poohed the idea that TV shows can serve as talent-discovery tools, in this time of cutbacks and consolidation, they’ve changed their tune. Jerkins explains: “There’s no artist development in the music industry anymore. You don’t have hungry young A&Rs like in the ’80s and ’90s out there looking for talent. We we need new platforms, be it TV or the Internet. And I feel that this is the best way to do it — to locate the talent and work on the music as it’s going on.”


Another big buzz word around the Idol set these days? Unity. As in all the chefs in this massive kitchen coming together to prepare the most mouth-watering meal possible, the kind that leaves you wanting seconds on Thursday night. “In the past, there’s been difficulty in working together,” a show insider says. “All these different elements were somewhat disjointed, where one bit finished and another started. This year, it’s all about being a powerhouse. All the partners — the producers, Fox, CKX, the sponsors, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and their managers, Universal, Jimmy Iovine — have a reinforced resolve to work together, like Idol United. Ryan in particular; he’s fired up with all the interactive stuff, but as a matter of pride, he’s determined to make this our biggest season. Now with Simon gone, even though they’re still friends, the cynicism and bullshit drops away, so he’s coming with all kinds of ideas.”

Hearing of this new united front, Berman chuckles: “I said to [my successor] Peter Liguori, ‘There’s the full-time job of running the network and the full-time job of running Idol.”

Which brings us to our final word of the day: credibility. It’s been a bit of an afterthought in past years — the viewers voted, a winner was announced, an album or two got released, some would do well, some would fade into obscurity. But there’s no better platform to launch a career than the American Idol stage. And in looking at the enormous success of Glee (in ratings, album and single sales, and soon, another tour) along with the slew of music-based shows on the horizon, perhaps the TV industry can take comfort in knowing they had an unparalleled impact on American culture.

“I’ve always been jealous of what Sony had with Idol,” Fair confesses. “I wish I could launch my brand-new act with 25 million viewers a week instead of having to go to radio and pray for rain. Idol is an incredible, established and ubiquitous part of entertainment in America. It’s like Kellogg’s. And that’s a tremendous value.”

— additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie and Shawna Malcom