There Will Only Be One True American Idol: A Chat with Nigel Lythgoe

By , Contributor

Eleven years and counting — that's a lifetime for a TV program these days and American Idol is celebrating a huge milestone this year, despite dwindling ratings. Though other singing shows have begun with a bang, Idol still breaks the bank with overall ratings and buzz , and one can't argue with its successful formula that has proven to be a viable springboard to success.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Idol head honcho Nigel Lythgoe isn't a bit worried about where the show is going, or which voice-related shows are chasing Idol's star.

Is Jimmy Iovine returning as a mentor on the show? Are you going to bring back guest mentors?

If you trust Jimmy—if you classify what Jimmy did last year mentorship—yes he is. He's coming back to do exactly what he did last year plus we're going to have guest mentors as well.

Any response from President Obama about the invite to sing on American Idol?

No. No response at all. I have the feeling he's a little too busy to answer.

Are there going to be any changes to Idol that you can talk about?

Well, there's going to be changes because obviously we're not doing the Beatles show again this year. We're going to the Elvis stage in Vegas, and we are going to Le Reve to do our "Green Mile" show. Other than that, there are no changes to the format at this time. I mean we constantly look at it and tweak it, but no, I don't see that we need any changes at this time.

How about the ratings this season, are you concerned?

Well, you're asking me in the 11th season when I thought I was going home after three weeks. Don't forget, Simon Cowell only packed for three weeks when we first came out here. No, I'm not. Listen, I am thrilled—let's be honest about this—after 11 years I'm thrilled with these ratings. We're constantly compared against ourselves and against our own ratings. Of course there's going to be come kind of deterioration in the ratings. We've now got two major programs in The Voice and X Factor against us. Whether people like them or dislike them they're still feeding from the same talent, and it's still going to dilute our audience.

But am I worried about the ratings? I'm more worried about getting the show right. My job is to worry about making the best shows that I can make, and that's what I would like to continue doing.

What did you attribute the dramatic rating drop so far this season. Is it inevitable that some sort of singing show fatigue sets in?

I think I've said it. Yes. It's not just that. We always said we were not ever going to do two series of Idol a year. We said that right from the beginning and we never have done. Now, of course, with the X Factor sitting there it feels like two Idol seasons on FOX, and The Voice is there plus other shows are still waiting to come in. So yes, of course there's going to be viewer fatigue. It's the same as too many science fiction dramas or too many hospital drams. But all I can say is that after 11 years I don't think we should be defending ourselves. I think we should still be saying, "Isn't it fantastic that we're still America's number one show?” So far.

I was wondering if you had watched Smash, and if you had thoughts about that, and the effect of shows like Idol and X Factor influencing scripted television these days.

Well, I think shows like Idol certainly are [an influence], especially as Katherine McPhee is the star of it. That Kelly Clarkson is being pulled in to sort of mentor on The Voice—I feel like we're turning stars out. And my other program So You Think You Can Dance is feeding Dancing with the Stars so I feel in a wonderful position having come over here to create future stars for American television. I saw the premiere [of Smash] a while ago now. Yes, you know, wow. I think Katharine McPhee is fantastic. It's going to be interesting to see if the public stays with it. I'm not sure. It depends on the drama now, I think. I'm not positive that America is going to necessarily get a musical show at this time without the campery of Glee, if you like.

It seems like there is a hunger for really sharp, smart, very honest feedback among judges on reality singing competitions. On The Voice they're very playful. On X Factor they were very argumentative. But I don't think that there's a lot of incisive, smart feedback coming back. I think that's something that people seem to miss. I think J Lo did that for a while last season and then abandoned that and seem to go into an "everyone's beautiful" mode. Are you going to encourage her to try and do the job she did during the top ten/top nine weeks last season? She was really great for a few weeks there.

This whole process of judging is extremely difficult in being as honest and as articulate as you can be, and at the same time trying to support the artist. So you're constantly saying, "Oh, it was pitchy. You need to get up to the note. You need to do this. You need to—."

Rather than saying, "You suck. Go and sue your singing teacher. Pack your suitcase. You're going home.” Which a recording executive like Simon Cowell can do very easily because his thought behind everything is, "Can you make me money?" And that is that world. I'm not condemning him for that because Jimmy Iovine's exactly the same—if I invest in you will you make me money? And that's how their brains work.

An artist like Jennifer or Steven go, "Oh, God, I remember when I took criticism for this or I took criticism for that. I don't want to be too harsh. My fans won't love me if I'm too harsh.” And that's the way that goes. So they are as honest as I think they can be for themselves and at the same time as supportive as they want to be for the artist.

Now, if that fails when we get down to the final 12, as it were, it's only because they truly and honestly believe in their final 12. And even last year—and I'm quite a ruthless judge, if you like, sometimes—I sat down and thought, "Now, what do you say negative about this kid who's just sang this song brilliantly?"

And if all people want is negativity—when you talk about being honest, if all you want them to say is, "You didn't sing that well, and that top note, you shouldn't have gone for that, and that was rubbish, and I don't like what you're wearing," then don't watch. If what you want is real good talent without gimmicks, without fireworks going off, without flashing lights, and just bloody good talent on the stage then watch American Idol because that's what you're going to get.

I know Randy and Jennifer have talked a lot about how grueling "Hollywood Week" is, especially this season, and I'm wondering if you can tell us any favorites that you have or any surprises that will come out of this week.

I'm shocked to a certain degree that—having been there for ten years and the kids have watched this since some of them were five years old—I'm shocked that they still don't realize how tough "Hollywood Week" is. A lot of it, I think, is to do with geographic circumstances of being East Coast kids coming to the West Coast. Not realizing how dry it is and especially with our winter this year it's been so hot, that they're just not drinking enough. And most of our people passing out and they were dropping like flies. There's no question about it. You'll see it, but they just weren't drinking, and it's all dehydration basically.

Amy Rumsfeld, "Tent Girl," came ill and she certainly passed a bug around, which didn't help. People were vomiting. But the passing out was purely down to either stupidity or dehydration. When I say "stupidity" if you drink five bottles of Five Hour Energy, the vitamin thing that keeps you awake for five hours, if you have five of those and don't eat, it's not going to help. And that was just one of the parents, for God sake.

But other than that, the surprise is, no. I mean it's just a surprise that people don't realize what they're going to be put through because we haven't changed it, and yet it's still that sleep deprivation the night that they've got to work. The best ones were going to bed by 11:30, 12:00, and the ones that sucked when they started and sucked when they finished were going to bed at 3:45, 4:00 in the morning.

Do you have a favorite this year so far?

I don't. I don't, no. I lie actually. One of my favorites was cut in Vegas.

You mentioned Vegas, and said it's going to be Elvis this year. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

It's not Elvis, as such. We're on the Elvis stage just to give us somewhere to go and make the kids feel like they were performing. And the songs, the style of music was late '50s going into the '60s so Buddy Holly, Elvis himself, all of those sort of close harmony groups. That's what that particular show is, and then, of course, when we went to Le Reve, which is just an incredible venue at Encore and the Wynn. That was the solo song with a solo instrument so they could choose the instrument that they wanted playing or play it themselves and just the solo voice. Again, the more we can show their natural talent the better.

Prior to season 11 you said it would be totally about the talent. How do you feel the show has raised the standards on its own singers this year?

Well, I loved last year because we had such a diversity of talent. That we had jazz, we had country, we had rock, and we allowed them to stay in their genres. And I think that was very important for us last year. And I think that has brought more and more diversity to the judges this year so that the jazz singers felt comfortable in coming.

Adele has certainly had a huge influence on the auditionees this year. I've never heard so many Adele songs. Last year it was Lady Gaga. This year it's Adele, and boys and girls singing Adele. I certainly think those types of voices and that—listen, I'm probably going to be very un-PC in saying that shape of singer as well has come out and feels proud—and rightly so—to come to the audition and expose their talent, and it's really good.

As usual, it's up to America to decide whether it likes the talent or not. I certainly do, but then again, I'm not going to say, "Oh, no. It's much worse than last year," am I. So I think the talent is terrific. I think the diversity of talent is terrific. I haven't agreed all the time with the judge's results, if you like, with their choices but that's great. That's what makes it subjective. That's what makes it interesting, and that's why people watch the show.

And with the top shows all feeding from the same talent pool how do you feel that has an impact on Idol?

I'm just blessed that America is so big and has got such wonderful talent year after year. I must say that going down to the 15-year-old area has helped us. It's reinvigorated it. I think that talent is really good, really young. I don't think The Voice is feeding off that talent. It seems to be sort of feeding off the talent that hasn't quite made it and hopefully will remake it in the future. And X Factor sort of did a little bit of both and sort of opened its gates to the groups and everything else. So it didn't really know what it wanted to do, I don't think.

During "Hollywood Week" the judges seemed to like seeing the contestants do group choreography and harmonize but that's not important for a contestant to win. Why make them go through that?

Because we see how they cope with people, to see how they cope with individual harmonies. Each one of them gets a solo within that. The choreography doesn't matter. You can stand there on a microphone as far as we're concerned. That's up to them. If they want to do it, it shows off their personalities. That too is exceptionally important as well in a performer. It gives us lots of different areas to look at, gives us comment, and, at that point, hopefully everyone's got a good voice. So then you start looking for other qualities to put them through on. They're exactly the same as So You Think You Can Dance. Why put them in pairs because it's a solo competition? Because you can judge them against somebody else, that's why.

There's been a lot of press about Ryan Seacrest moving on from the show. Can you speak about his foreseeable future or if there could be an idol without Seacrest?

Well, listen, there can always be an Idol without anybody. I'm surprised that question's still being asked after Simon left us when everybody said there wouldn't be an Idol without Simon. I believe that Seacrest is probably the best host in the business. Why he hasn't received an Emmy yet, I'm not sure.

I would hate to think of him leaving American Idol. I think he is the glue that sticks it all together and moves it along. I'm a huge fan, from the moment I heard him on radio when I first came to America and asked him to come along and audition. I don't have anything bad to say against Ryan. Apart from he's too good looking, he's got too much money, to be given $300 million to invest in companies. I hope he comes on for Nigel Lythgoe Productions. I just hope he doesn't leave, to be frank with you. I think they should try and sort out a deal.

American Idol appears each Wednesday and Thursday at 8PM EST on FOX.

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A child of parents both heavily involved in the travel industry, Gabriella Ribeiro Truman was born to do her job. By day she owns and operates Trumarketing, a boutique sales, marketing and PR firm servicing tourism-related clients from around the world. Also a frequent blogger, she produces The Explorateur…

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