Nigel Lythgoe to Launch Country Singing Competition on CMT (Exclusive)

Jordan Nuttall

The "American Idol" exec producer is teaming up with his son, Simon, for "CMT's Next Superstar," to premiere in April.

The Brits are going country. 

American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and his son Simon are teaming for a new singing-songwriting competition series. CMT's Next Superstar -- from Legacy Prods and Big Red 2, owned by Simon and Nigel, respectively -- is in production and slated for 10 episodes beginning in April on the Viacom-owned, Nashville-based country music network. The winner will be announced during the CMT Awards in June with a single to be released in tandem. "Country music is all about storytelling, personalities and putting yourself into the songs" says Nigel. "This show is not about going to a set, it's about being in a location that has history to it. We're down and dirty in the heart of Nashville."

That means the cast could cut vocals at Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and others made seminal records. Or they might visit an Army base as part of a patriotic theme. "I'd like to take them to a prison and have them write a song about retribution or why they should mend their ways," says Simon, 36, recalling Cash's classic live album At Folsom Prison.

Judges have yet to be determined, but the show's finale will be held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, a former home of the Grand Old Opry. It's not the first time the Lythgoes have worked together. Simon, whose mother is former dancer Bonita Shawe, has been a producer on Idol since 2002, tasked with shooting Carrie Underwood in her hometown of Checotah, Okla. during Season 4. Now, he is taking the lead as Superstar’s Nashville-based showrunner, with Nigel staying in Los Angeles on the Idol set.

In fact, the older Lythgoe credits his progeny for bringing the original Idol idea to his attention. In 1999, Simon was a young producer on the Australian version of Pop Stars, the inspiration for Pop Idol and later American Idol. " Simon has a lot to do with this entire genre of shows," Nigel says. "It's how this whole crazy situation began."

Read on for THR’s Q&A with the father-son team.

THR: CMT’s Next Superstar will inevitably be compared to American Idol and Nashville Star. How is this show different?

Simon Lythgoe: No one episode is the same. We’re changing locations all the time, shooting in Nashville, Memphis and Texas. Every challenge is different. Every guest judge will be different. On Nashville star, they didn’t have media challenges. We’re giving them radio training and putting them through photo shoots and music video challenges. We’re putting them on a tour bus. You're really going to get to know these contestants really well, just by being with them 24-7.

Nigel Lythgoe: It's not just going to be another American Idol production, why would I be involved in that? I've got the best. From my point of view, I want to change it up totally.

THR: What else can you tell us about the format of the competition?

Simon: We're putting the onus on the contestants, where they can really make the song their own. We will pick the genres and they have to then turn it into a country song, but make it their own. So if they want a fiddle, they can have it. If they want a steel guitar, they've got it. They can go their own their path, but they are responsible for how they perform. We'll give them the tools, they have to take control of it. We're not the run-of-the-mill, studio-based, glitz and glamour show.

THR: And they will be living together?

Simon: Yes, we’re putting them into a music mansion outside of Nashville where they will live together and work together. There will be rehearsal studios in the mansion as well. It's not a hundred percent locked in yet, but the one we're looking at is a famous person's house.

THR: What about the judges and the prize?

Nigel: The permanent judges will definitely have someone that represents the music label, because the end prize is a record deal. Also the winner will be an act on the CMT Tour, which hits the road in summer.

Simon: Similar to Idol, we will have a guest judge each week who specializes in a particular field. If we're shooting a music video, which is one of the challenges, we will show all the backstage stuff, the director, the casting, how they produce it. Then we'll stream it to film students who vote to determine who the bottom two contestants are.Otherwise the judges decide.

THR: Is the production big like it is on Idol?

Nigel: No, it's not. It's much more about being in bars, famous country music spots, the Mother Church of Country Music, the Grand Ole Opry, where our finale will be.

Simon: Or Sun Records, where Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and a bunch of royals came out of. So one of the challenges will be to go there and sing a song out of their catalogue.

THR: Simon, what have you learned from your father about television?

Simon: How important a person's personality is when you're trying to find a star. I was the first producer to drive nine hours to Carrie Underwood’s hometown, which was the quietest place I've ever been to. But to see that and to draw Carrie's personality out with Nigel in the edit suite – he will hone that personality and make a star out of it. It's not just about vocal ability, it's about America falling in love with that star. And that's exactly what we're trying to do in this series. We want America to fall in love with the person just as much as, and they'll see that through the song and performances, it's not just about vocal ability.

THR: Nigel, what have you learned from your son?

Nigel: Without him, I wouldn't be here, I don't think. By him working on Pop Stars in Australia, and seeing that whole style of production where you actually show the bad auditions along with the good auditions -- and even show the auditions, which had never really been done before -- that sent me on the road to Idol, which is what brought me here.