“American Idol will be right back, after the break.” Ryan Seacrest has uttered that sentence hundreds of times over the past 15 years. But now those words are taking on a new meaning.
As the series ends its run on Fox, creator Simon Fuller tells The Hollywood Reporter that he is thinking, “How does Idol live for the next 15 years?” Says the 55-year-old CEO of XIX Entertainment, who came up with the concept for Idol back in 2001: “There will no doubt be another format or refinement or elevation of the format. Now I can actually revamp it and come up with a new version. And we can look back on 15 seasons and think of some legitimate ways to allow people to enjoy them again, maybe adding another dimension to it.”
Indeed, Fuller, who worked in music publishing and A&R before managing artists like the Spice Girls, is already planning American Idol, “the next generation.” Over the course of an hour on a recent afternoon, he talked to THR about the next steps in the evolution of Idol, while looking back at the series’ early years.
How important is it to you to preserve the legacy of American Idol?
For the last 15 seasons we’ve been very protective of the TV show. We’ve never done more than one season a year. The touring and merchandising has always been thoughtful. I think we’ve had great integrity [in] protecting the brand so it wasn’t tarnished. So here we are facing our last season on Fox and now the legacy can be more in our focus. Now we can catch our breath. It allows me to rethink the show for the first time. When you’re a No. 1 show, it’s hard to be too bold and brazen about changing the format because it’s working and succeeding. Also, you’re always rushing to get the next season completed. Now we start with a clean sheet of paper.
The broadcasting landscape has changed so much since Idol debuted. How will streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu affect the next incarnation of the series?
There are loads of ideas being shared and I’m deep in thought about how we can evolve Idol. We debuted at the very beginning of the digital world. So the next generation of Idol will be a lot more interactive, a lot more immersive. For me the most exciting thing is we can really now dive deep with all the new technology that’s coming. My head is exploding with opportunities. The next generation of Idol — and Idol will certainly be coming back for sure — will have a youthful glow and it will be pioneering again, just as it was when we first began.
How do you feel going into the final week of Idol on Fox?
The overriding emotion is pride. It’s been an amazing 15 years and it’s the first time ever that I’ve been able to look back and think, Wow, that was pretty good. We made our mark; we made history. It’s exceeded all expectations. In the entertainment industry, you very rarely get to look back. For the first time, I’ve managed to do that in these past two or three weeks and that will carry me through the finale. Saying goodbye to a lot of people I may not work with again, that’s the only sadness for me. [Along with] my partners at Fremantle, I think the group [working on the] show has been pretty much the same since day one. I’m pleased that the final show will still have the warmth and the excitement as the first show 15 seasons ago. In many ways it still feels youthful.
Observing the studio audiences over the years, it’s clear that Idol has appealed to all ages and that it’s been one of the rare series entire families watch together.
I think that’s certainly one of the legacy points. It was a show that the family could watch. Music unites people. Whether you’re 5 or you’re 55 or 85, the musical tastes of the world are more aligned than they ever have been. There was a time when what a teenager liked would be polar opposite to what their parents would like. That’s not the case anymore.
Looking back on the 15 years, what are your personal highlights?
The first season finale with Kelly [Clarkson] and Justin [Guarini], I thought that was a very special moment. Finding Carrie Underwood was significant. When you saw her, even in her innocent, raw state, you knew she had the potential to be a big star. Kelly and Carrie represent the purity of Idol … the perfect American dream. I think Chris Daughtry’s journey was a significant one. People thought he had a good chance of winning and he got knocked out early, but his talent saw him through. It allowed him in some ways to reinvent himself and create the band Daughtry. He had this rock persona that maybe would have been a little bit harder for him to achieve if he had been a solo winner and won the whole show. And he went on to sell millions of records and so in the most unlikely way, he achieved all his dreams too.
Do you have a favorite performance?
I have so many. Adam Lambert doing “Mad World” was one of my favorites. It was unexpected and magnificent.
Have you thought about the impact that the show has had on the economy?
I quite often think about that. It’s something that hasn’t been recognized as much as it should have been. Whether that’s all the people employed, the hotels that have been booked, the hundreds of thousands of concert tickets sold, all that music that’s been sold, all the merchandise, all those people that are fueling other shows, Broadway and the movies that our stars have been in. The advertisers that have bought into the show. We had that wonderful close relationship with iTunes for many years. The impact of Idol and its value is billions and billions.
How did Idol’s relationship with the music industry change over the years?
I created Idol to find another path to break artists — I could see them [perform] and engage with the audience who would, in a way, tell me who they felt was interesting and who they believed could go on and be a star. It was a new paradigm — a new way to take an artist and music to the consumer, and have them buy the songs and go and see the concerts. I didn’t need the music industry. So initially, there was a little bit of resentment. Not overt, more like — Well, hang on, this is bypassing the development process, the A&R process, the talent scout process, the producing and it can’t have value because you can’t do that. It’s too quick, no one’s paid their dues, they haven’t learned their trade, it can’t be good enough, it can’t be appropriate. And so there was a little bit of disdain toward Idol. But the success was massive all over the world — this was happening in England, in Germany, in Australia, in South Africa, in Sweden, in India — everywhere young, new artists were selling millions of records and being No. 1 in every country in the world — you could not ignore it. We worked with Sony for many years and then Universal. We embraced the industry; we didn’t alienate it. And then, guess what? Everyone wanted to be on a TV show, everyone wanted to create a TV show and there were hundreds of them around the world.
I like to think that Idol helped the music industry grow up a bit and understand that music can be everywhere. It was a point when the music industry was going through so much change; it was the advent of the digital age. The digital world shocked the music industry. They withdrew into their own world rather than step out and be strident and confident. And I was strident and confident. I just went for it. And I think the success I had gave everybody confidence.
Do you recall where you were when the first kernel of the idea to create American Idol came into your mind?
At my house in the South of France. I would spend my summers there. The first thoughts of what this could be were: How do you use the internet and create an interactive experience where people can affect the outcome or choose the songs that an artist would sing, or choose the members? I have had so many great ideas there. It’s the time when I can relax and I’m not doing anything and I’m the most comfortable.
What else is on your plate right now?
I’ve got a diverse company that [includes] my fashion businesses with Victoria and David Beckham and Roland Mouret. I’m active in many different sports. I just acquired the Miami soccer franchise with David Beckham. We found the land to build our stadium; last week we closed on that. I’m doing a new TV show for the BBC, which is quite different from what I’ve done previously, which I’ll keep secret [for now], but it’s a very exciting project, with a global perspective. I’m very excited about the new technologies. I’m working with a company called Pulse, creating a virtual pop star. I’ve spent a whole lot of time thinking about this, I’ve been waiting for the technology to be good enough to make it happen. We have the digital rights for Elvis Presley and we’re building a virtual reality show around him. We’re still launching new artists and we still have Annie Lennox and Aloe Blacc so music is still very prominent in all that I do.
Where do you feel most at home these days?
I love Los Angeles. I come from England and lived in London for many years. My wife is American and when we were dating she moved to live with me in London. Then we got married and when we had Grace, our first child, Natalie wanted to move to America. I said, “Let’s go!” and that was six years ago and I love living here. I love American people and I feel so at home. I’m happy here. Los Angeles is an extraordinary city. It’s always been an important city but now it’s an essential city. If you have any aspirations in tech or in entertainment you have to be in Los Angeles. Fashion is moving here. It’s a truly great city.