Secrets Behind 'American Idol's' Incredible Comeback

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.



RYAN SEACREST Ellen realized Idol wasn't the perfect fit for her and that on top of doing her daily show, it was a lot of work. She's a dear friend, I loved having her there.

RANDY JACKSON As for Kara, I think she found it hard to get her footing and figure out how she would fit into this thing. And with four people, the timing was difficult as well. It's tough to walk into something so established and become, not just the third wheel but the fourth.

DARNELL There were meetings, conference calls, video conferences between myself, Cecile, Fuller, [Fox chairman] Peter Rice, Nigel and Ken -- for some, we were all together, others were piecemeal. But for me personally, it was thousands of phone calls, and that is not an exaggeration.

FROT-COUTAZ We met a lot of people, we looked at a lot of names. I wanted to make sure we didn't leave any stone unturned, hadn't made any assumptions and we'd gone as broad as we possibly could. There was no bad idea.

DARNELL We weren't sure what direction we were going, so we just kept taking meetings. We had a list: Mariah Carey was on it, Shania Twain, Harry Connick Jr. Cecile and I were the first line of defense, and we met with at least 40 people... A lot of names were being thrown around -- some were comical to us, some were real. We heard from Trump, who actually did call us through his people. He didn't know anything about music! The cooking lady Paula Deen was also pitched...

FROT-COUTAZ Then I had lunch with Randy Jackson, and we were brainstorming, and he's the one who said, "Have you thought about Steven Tyler?" We hadn't. It turned out Kara, who deserves some credit for this, had just worked with Steven, and she brought up the idea to Randy.

JACKSON Unbeknownst to Kara, I mentioned Steven to the producers. I thought, he's a guy where what you see is what you get. And I think these shows need more of that.


DARNELL I didn't know what I was looking for until Steven walked in. I kept hoping for a personality, someone different, who didn't fit into the mold. So I came into my office a little late, his back was turned, and I have a piano in my office which he was playing -- not something rock 'n' roll-y, I think it was classical. He turned around, and I was wearing my cowboy hat, which I often do, and he looked at me and said, "You're a freak!" Then we just started talking. He was ultracool yet not snobby about music. He was so honest about his rehab and Aerosmith; he told me his father was a classical musician, that he listens to everything and that some music makes him cry. He was entertaining, just like you see him now. Having spent 40 years being a huge rock star, he didn't watch what he said, and I don't just mean him cursing. He was filter-less. We met for 20 minutes, and I knew that day. I literally ran to Peter Rice's office the minute he left and said, "We finally got one."

SEACREST I remember Cecile telling me she was going to go meet Steven Tyler and she wasn't quite sure what to expect. He blew her away. She said, "You would think he's this tough, badass rock star, which he is, but he's probably got the biggest heart on the panel."

DARNELL Now with Jennifer, she was on Simon's lips and on his list, and we loved it. We were invested in her long before we had Steven.

FULLER I had lunch with Jennifer and her manager Benny Medina at the Beverly Hills Hotel in April of last year to ask her to do a show with me called Q'Viva. But as we were talking, I had in the back of my mind that she would be great for Idol. So I brought it up halfway through the main course, maybe into the coffee and tea. I just threw it out there. She was a huge fan of the show, so she knew all about Idol -- she was like an expert, actually. She watched it every season. Jennifer didn't say yes there and then, but I knew she was intrigued, and eventually I got her to do it.

SEACREST I remember Benny Medina calling me after they had done all their meetings and seen all the players. He wanted some input, and I said: "Do it. She won't need it, but I promise you, I will always have Jennifer's back on that live show. She will be phenomenal."



DARNELL We hired them without having them sit together, and we didn't know how they would be dynamically, which is probably the most important thing when it comes to these shows. So I asked Ryan to invite them to dinner the night before we made our big announcement.

SEACREST It was the four of us -- no agents, no spouses, nobody else -- and top secret. Cecile and I had talked about having us get together and shoot the breeze, just talk freely and openly about the show in the past and the future and what we can all bring to it. And within the first 12 minutes of us sitting in my living room, we could all tell that this was going to be fun.

JACKSON We got on like a house on fire. Ryan and I looked at each other and knew it was definitely going to work. Then some of the execs dropped by later, and they were like, "Wow, it's like old pals week."

SEACREST Randy's telling stories about the Journey days, and Steven is telling stories about … well, he's got so many great stories. And he asked questions.

JACKSON I said: "Look, you can say whatever you want. You always have to call it as you see it and stand behind whatever you say. If you love something to death, love something to death. I don't care who says what -- do you, always." It's exactly the same advice we give the kids. I think we were really blessed, finding two legends -- and Jennifer was an avid fan of the show -- who could jump into this. They were able and really felt the nurturing passion that a show like this requires. 

SEACREST Steven tells Jennifer that he just watched The Back-up Plan and thought she was brilliant in it. Jennifer says, "Is that the reason you want to sit beside me on Idol? The Back-up Plan?" And we all laughed. The next day we announced it.

DARNELL The news that Jennifer and Steven were joining the show had basically leaked, and we debated whether we should announce it officially. We decided to do it at the Forum in September because leaks don't mean anything until you hear that it's official. And the crowd was out of their minds when Jennifer and Steven came out. It was exciting. It felt like a new beginning. We all sat on a panel and spoke to the press, and they were already charming together. The boys were protective over Jennifer. It was lovely.

FULLER There are a lot of preconceived thoughts about Steven and Jennifer. They're known as these icons -- but not people. Jennifer was always loved, but is she a diva? I think she was quite polarizing prior to Idol, but as we got to know her, we got to see the sensitive, funny, compassionate, smart side. Then it's, like, "Hey, she's kind of cool."

FROT-COUTAZ Chemistry builds over time in working together, but we knew both would bring very different things to it. And that's what matters, ultimately, is to have different kinds of characters and points of views. Plus, they're both passionate people. Was it a gamble? Of course it was. Everything is.



JACKSON The first audition city was in New Jersey. We sat down, and I had a very big deja vu to the Hollywood Athletic Club, as it was called then, when me, Paula and Simon did the very first day of auditions. I'll never forget Paula's and my face when the first kid walked in, and Simon hated on them. Paula and I looked at each other like, "What have we gotten ourselves into? What is this thing?" And I think Steven and Jennifer had a little bit of that the first couple of hours. Like, we have to say no to people on camera -- it's not like you can hide behind anything. They were a little shellshocked.

LYTHGOE Then again, they were all there at 10 in the morning, and that was new for us! [Laughs] As soon as I had them at our first audition, I knew it was going to be a long road because they kept giving the singers opportunities. It wasn't like we'd done before, where somebody would start singing and would be interrupted with a, "No thank you. Enough. You're too Broadway. Get out." For them, it was respecting the artist and each other on the panel, so that even if two said no and one said, "I really believe in this person," the two would give into it. So when it came to Hollywood Week, we took about 50 percent more people than we normally had.

KEN WARWICK The audition process is a long job. Everybody who has sat in that chair by 4 o'clock in the afternoon on the 320th person has thought, "Oh my God, I've got another six weeks of this." But they were genuinely involved with the kids, so the time flew by for them.

FROT-COUTAZ The following city was Milwaukee, which I couldn't go to, but Ken sent me a text halfway through the first session that read, "Best judges panel ever." They were just beside themselves with how good it was, both in terms of the judging but also the talent. Everything kind of came together.

WARWICK There was a buzz about the whole day that made you realize, "Wow, I didn't think it was going to be possible, but it's working, and it's working well. These guys are great." Did I miss Simon sitting there? Not like I thought I would because there was a whole new dynamic.

SEACREST It's like meeting someone you want to start dating or you see the house that you want to buy -- it was just meant to be. And for us, part of making this show is being able to screw around, goof off and make fun of each other. It was just like that from Day 1.

LYTHGOE There was some good chemistry here that you could see with your own eyes. Of course, Steven with his Tyler-isms was perfect, and Jennifer looked beautiful from the moment she walked in at 10 in the morning until she we would go home at 10 at night.

JIMMY IOVINE I'm really proud of the judges and what a terrific job they did in weeding through the talent. Everyone feels it's the best crop of people Idol has had in a long time, if ever, and it's because they gave the kids the time, and they were focused, not jaded.



DARNELL I don't sleep a lot on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I'll wake up at 4:45 and will have some sense of the ratings by 5 in the morning. I'm very superstitious, so I always check them from this one computer I have set up downstairs in my house. Then I will call or e-mail -- usually at a little less vampire-like time -- everybody something. And this year, we didn't know what to expect. That first night, it came in a little more than we thought, and then every progressive week, it's gotten better and better. But I never relax about the ratings. I'll be sweating it every week until after the finale.

LYTHGOE The minute we were sort of successful again, people on Twitter were saying, "Oh, but the ratings aren't as good as this … " And I would reply, "Yes they are!" I found myself probably arguing with a 7-year-old in Wisconsin.

WARWICK All we can do is give the viewers the best show possible. Whether they watch it or not, you genuinely don't know. I was pretty confident that they would. We wanted to be quite positive about the talent just to change it up from what it has been in the past 10 years, which was very negative. It worked well; we managed to pick good stories. It's what we do.

FULLER Obviously, it was really important that we did well this year. Everybody felt that, and I think it's reflected in probably our best season ever.

IOVINE I didn't know what to expect because I don't really understand television. When everyone said, "Simon's leaving," I was thinking, "If the ratings went down to 10 million people, that's great! I could break an artist off that!"


SEACREST I was nervous going into the live shows because with all those moving parts and new bodies in those seats -- it is a machine, there's a lot going on to run that show. So I was curious to see how smoothly it would go. And I mean, you watch it now, it's like they've been doing it all their lives; the timing and the cadence is great.

WARWICK We were always going to do a Top 12, although after deciding to shorten the middle rounds, we had also been in deep discussions about whether there should be a Top 10. Like, how much can the public take before they start to get fed up? That had been a concern in the past, particularly with the Top 24 shows. Then on the night of the wild-card show -- which was designed to give a bit of jeopardy to the end of that middle process -- the judges decided there and then to do the saving and go with 13, and we went along with it.

JACKSON It's also one of the most diverse bunches we've ever had -- you got Casey Abrams, a jazz guy; Paul McDonald, a young Rod Stewart-Bob Dylan guy that loves Ryan Adams; Lauren Alaina is your Carrie meets Kelly country girl; Haley Reinhart is your Joss Stone; and you have an old-school country crooner in Scotty McCreery.

MARCH 2011

FULLER Each year, we have one or two standout kids. The difference this year was everyone had something great about him or her. We never had such a compelling group.

DARNELL It's one of the reasons I put the save in. There was a lot of controversy about it internally with the producers when I first proposed it, but ultimately it's been a great thing. It adds drama to the results shows. It's worked great.

LYTHGOE I was one of the people who was so against it, but thank God we saved Casey. From a practical point of view, I loved it because here was a guy who really deserved to be saved. But I would prefer to go to my way, which is the judges make the decision out of the bottom two or three that America votes. Then you don't need a save.

JACKSON We used the save that early out of this feeling of oneness with that kid's talent and how he's so different. As a jazz guy, he's probably more musical than anyone we've ever had on the show. I also think we were all a little shocked when Pia Toscano got ousted so early.

FROT-COUTAZ Pia is a fantastic singer, and technically she was probably one of our best, but somehow she didn't connect with people. She was almost too perfect. If the judges hadn't saved Casey, I'm sure they would have saved Pia.

JACKSON It's about emotional investment. Like with Haley, we've seen her grow in the competition -- she's been in the bottom a ton of times and is still around -- so obviously the public believes that she's honestly giving them something. Lauren, too, they're both still standing. It's about getting them to fully engage on all levels. Everyone is talented, but who's gonna win this damn thing? Come on, now.

IOVINE Scotty is very much a turnkey artist. Few singers you meet come fully equipped, batteries included, and he's that kid. … Bottom line is, I got lucky. I can make a record with anyone I want. That's the luxury of being me, right?

DARNELL It has always been about America's decision. And they've done pretty well over the years. Do I always agree with the winner? No. But that's my own personal feelings, and America is in charge -- that's what makes the show work. And the good news is that, over the years, whether you're out fifth or second or if you win doesn't determine how big of a star you're going to be necessarily. We have so many examples of people doing well -- Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken -- without winning the show.

FROT-COUTAZ The year Chris Daughtry got voted out I was really unhappy. I wanted to boycott the show.


MAY 2011

SEACREST I remember when Scotty walked into the room, they all knew that he had something. Lauren, same thing in Nashville. After seeing millions of people over the last 10 years, you do get a knack for knowing who has potential and who doesn't. You don't always get it right, but you rely on your gut a little bit. Still, this group has more uniqueness, and I think more individual points of view, which is good.

JACKSON I'm so happy with where the show is and that we're all here, but I also tip my hat off to several other people -- Simon, Ryan and Paula, Nigel, Kenny, Cecile, Mike and Fuller. We started something and forged into an area that no one thought would really be successful. And my God, we've born a new TV tradition in America. That, to me, is bigger than anything, and I think about it always. At the end of it all, you have to look back and go, "Job well done." You can kind of beat your chest a little bit, because it's all about trying to help great artists. That's why the show says, "Search for the Next Superstar."

FULLER Everybody across the board has this renewed energy and spirit. Cecile is showing a whole new side with this ray of positivity and ambition. Ken's been fantastic this season. From the very top to the bottom of this production, people are putting in their best work this season. Everyone cares; it's everyone's show. You walk onto our set, whoever it is, there's a smile on their face, and they're proud.

FROT-COUTAZ There is an underlying respect there. It's like family. I spend more time on Idol than I do with my family, and there's that comfort that comes with those relationships. If something bad happened, they'd look out for you. They would.

FULLER Now, we're all going to take a well-deserved break and then get together. We're coming at the show now with a little bit of calm and perspective. We can make it better, and there will undoubtedly be plenty of innovation and new ideas. It really feels like this is the first year of the next however many years -- hopefully plenty.


TALES FROM THE TOP: The brain trust behind the show's triumphant return reveal their innermost American Idol secrets.

Nigel Lythgoe
Executive producer
The Britain-born CEO of Big Red 2 Entertainment also co-created Fox's So You Think You Can Dance and CMT's Next Superstar and has a game show, Secret Fortune, in development at CBS.

  • My Idol Seat "Don't sit, ever."
  • Idol Contestant Who Deserved a Second Chance Carly Smithson, Season 7
  • Favorite Idol Moment When Clay Aiken turned up for a surprise duet with Michael Sandecki, an Aiken impersonator, during Idol's 5th season.
  • If I Appeared on Idol, I'd Sing ... "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)"
  • Show I Wish Was Mine Dancing With the Stars

Ken Warwick
Executive producer
FremantleMedia's executive producer on worldwide production of the Idol formats, Warwick also serves as an exec vp of NBC's reality hit America's Got Talent. His credits include Britain's Gladiators and Don't Try This at Home. When Warwick isn't on set, he and childhood pal Lythgoe tend to their own Villa San Juliette winery in Paso Robles, Calif.

  • Idol Contestant Who Deserved a Second Chance Katharine McPhee, Season 5. "She's an underrated talent." 
  • Favorite Idol Moment Kara DioGuardi surprising Bikini Girl during the Season 8 finale.
  • Show I Wish Was Mine Top Gear

Cecile Frot-Coutaz
CEO, FremantleMedia N.A.
With a stable of successful game and talent shows -- among them  America's Got Talent, The Price Is Right and Family Feud -- the France-born executive has upped Fremantle's American cachet since joining the company in 1995.

  • My Idol Seat Control room
  • Favorite Idol Moment Kelly Clarkson singing Aretha Franklin's "Respect." I remember thinking during rehearsal, "Oh my God, this girl is really good!"
  • Idol Contestant Who Deserved a Second Chance Adam Lambert, Season 8
  • If I Appeared on Idol, I'd Sing "House of the Rising Sun"
  • Show I Wish Was Mine Mad Men

Mike Darnell
President of alternative, Fox
Darnell oversees the network's unscripted series as well as its original movies and specials. Among his credits: Hell's Kitchen, So You Think You Can Dance and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? He joined the net in 1994.

  • My Idol Seat Between the booth and standing on the side of the stage with Nigel.
  • Favorite Idol Moment Watching Kelly Clarkson win. I was in the "truck," and at the moment she was crowned, I could feel that we had a phenomenon in the show.
  • If I Appeared on Idol, I'd Sing ... "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"
  • Show I Wish Was Mine America's Got Talent

-- Idol package features additional reporting by Alex Ben Block, Noela Hueso, Lacey Rose, Mimi Turner and Cortney Wills