American Idol in Season 11: Nigel Lythgoe Talks SYTYCD-Style Voting, Banned Songs List

With only three episodes remaining of So You Think You Can Dance‘s eighth season, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is beginning to turn his attention to Fox’s other reality tentpole, a little show called American Idol. Coming off a year in which Idol not only survived Simon Cowell’s exit but thrived creatively (scoring 10 Emmy nominations) and in the ratings (despite a reconfigured judges’ panel and new time slot), Lythgoe says he is hesitant to make any drastic changes to the show when it returns for Season 11 in January 2012. But he took a few minutes to talk to TVLine about possible changes to Idol‘s voting rules, the idea of introducing a “banned songs list” that would outlaw “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” and other repeat offenders, and his penchant for “stirring up passion” among Idol and SYTYCD fans via his Twitter account. Read away, and come back to TVLine tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview, where Uncle Nigel talks about his Emmy hopes for Idol, Ryan Seacrest, and Cat Deeley.

TVLINE | When we last spoke in May, you had mentioned the possibility of making some changes to Idol‘s voting rules — either by limiting the number of votes per device, or borrowing the system you use on So You Think You Can Dance, where the Bottom 2 vote-getters perform for the judges on results night, and the judges make the final call about who goes home. Have the Idol powers that be explored these ideas any further?
We have spoken about it. We continue to speak about it. It’s very difficult to go from saying we had 120 million votes [in Season 10] then turning around next year and saying, “We got 15,000 votes this week!” A number of people in the [last] meeting we had thought that would not be good for the program, and it could be taken the wrong way. I mean, it’s never going to be 15,000, really; we’d probably be down to 30 million, but people would use that to say the program is losing viewers. That said, there still could be a ceiling put on certain votes, be it text [votes], maybe. I think we currently limit online voting to 50 votes, so maybe we could do the same for texting. We’re still discussing. I still like the judges being able to sort of look at the Bottom 2, and choose one of them, or assist in America’s vote. Don’t forget: America doesn’t vote people off the program, it votes to keep people on the program. And in that, rather like [So You Think You Can] Dance, the Bottom 2 could be looked at and the decision could be made by the judges.

TVLINE | If you go with the latter option, you’re going to have a lot of angry fans, and open up the Twitter floodgates to people calling you a moron because you’re putting more power in the hands of the judges, letting them make the final call on the two lowest vote-getters. That’s a really significant change in the way Idol works. Are you scared of backlash?
No, no. I don’t know why they’d be unhappy. Again, I repeat, they’re not voting people off the show — that is not the ethos of the show. And the people that are loved by America will never go near the judges. I get [angry criticism] with So You Think You Can Dance all the time, you probably know.

TVLINE | Yes, I do.
You can keep your favorites away from the judges for the entire series — just by voting. It’s always America’s favorite that wins.

TVLINE | I think with So You Think You Can Dance this year, there was the feeling that as judges, you guys get to pick who goes through to the Top 20. Then you get to continue choosing among the bottom two men and women until you’re down to the Top 10. And when we reached that Top 10, there wasn’t a big announcement to say, “We’ll continue doing a dance-off with the bottom two.” And maybe that’s the source of the outrage.
You never win in that premise. People don’t always know when we’re [making our decision and it is the same as] America’s vote. They’ll still kill us. Last week for instance, we did as America voted [with the elimination of Jordan and Jess], but we still get the blame. People love to blame me — that’s part of it. All of my rants online, I’m smiling most of the time and laughing. Because you don’t want a row with a 10-year-old in Boise, Idaho. That’s part of the fun of it.

TVLINE | I feel like you understand that outrage is a part of the process — slamming down the remote when someone good goes home too soon, or railing against the judges’ comments.
The only thing that annoys me are the ones who say “I have been a fan of So You Think You Can Dance every season since it started, and this year you sent home my favorite dancer, so I’ll never watch it again.” Well, then you’re not a fan of So You Think You Can Dance! You’re a fan of one person. And in truth, there was outrage when we kept people on this season, during our first results show when we didn’t send anyone home because we thought America should see more of the contestants. If you’re a fan of So You Think You Can Dance, it should be “Whoopee! I get to see more of those wonderful dancers next week!” And anyway, like I said, the people that are going to win never go anywhere near the judges. So no matter how much you bitch and complain about the horrible judges — the horrible judges who picked the contestants in the first place, and had to love them to pick them, so stop saying “You hate them! Why do you hate them so much?” — it’s illogical, but it’s good. It’s good that people are so passionate about it. And I love stirrng up the passion. That’s what I do on my television shows and that’s what I do on my Twitter site.

TVLINE | Is part of the appeal for you of potentially making Idol‘s system for elimination more similar to SYTYCD the fact that a sing-off between the Bottom 2 could result in a more suspenseful results show?
I think so. There’s a challenge there that gives the program a little more interest. I’m not, as I’ve said in the past, a huge fan of the Judges’ Save, however, I was grateful it was there [in Season 10] because it gave us a wonderful moment with Casey. So I can be swayed in my personal opinion, that’s for sure. I was delighted it was there, but just in prinicipal I don’t like the Save: I’d much prefer if it were a sing-off.

TVLINE | I want to ask you about Steve Tyler’s performance at the judges’ table. As the season went on, especially when we got past the pre-taped auditions and Hollywood rounds, I felt like he became very muted, that he stopped having much of an opinion about the performances. Have you spoken to him about how to translate his personality better once the live telecasts begin?
Steven is the sweetest of souls, for starters. And as an artist, he’s been though every problem a rock star could go through and come out the other end. He was never tough on anybody, if you look at it. So when you look at a Top 10 or a Top 13 where everyone is really strong in their own right, and they’ve been chosen by these judges, he is never gonna be tough. Not gonna happen. And I’m really grateful for the person he is. Same with Jennifer [Lopez]: People said “The judges aren’t being critical!” I’m not sure what they want them to say. They’re not going to turn around and say, “Pack your suitcase, you’re going home.” If you’re saying “I miss Simon Cowell being rude to people,” then that’s one thing. But I’d much prefer getting the level of talent we got because the judges were so forgiving in the initial stages, and so wanting the kids to do well, that they kept them and encouraged them through some poor times, and got them to a point where these kids really were extremely talented and growing every week, in my opinion. I prefer that kind of judge at this moment in time with the world — the economic crisis, trying to see a light at the end of the tunnel — than going back to where we were. I mean, [Simon’s style] was fabulous for the time we were doing that — “My God, he didn’t just say that!” But now I’d prefer Jennifer saying “Wow you’re amazing” or “I love you” as opposed to “Go and see a singing teacher.”

TVLINE | Jennifer, though, from maybe Top 11 to, say, Top 6 week or thereabouts, was giving really specific, instructive critiques: Telling Stefano to read the lyrics before he tackled a song, telling Pia to stomp it out and physically work the stage even during ballads. She wasn’t overtly harsh, but she was very constructive. Will you encourage her to do more of that in Season 11?
Absolutely. And I think Jimmy Iovine brought a lot in that area, too. Jimmy was much more critical because his endgame is “I want to sell a record,” not “I want to see this kid get on.” He came from the recording executive arena — exactly where Simon Cowell came from: Down to earth, “I’m not gonna sugarcoat this critique.” Then you’ve got the professional critiques: Jennifer and Randy. You mustn’t forget Randy in this, as far as I’m concerned. He, for me, really helped the process. He knew the program, he got on with the process, and allowed Jennifer and Steven to just be Jennnifer and Steven.

TVLINE | Any other big changes in store for Idol for 2012?
The world is gonna be different when we come back. The Voice is now around, and The X Factor will have come onto the scene as well. It’s gonna be a different world but we’ll keep doing what we do, which is the honesty of open, clean auditions, and kids coming on that stage raw and hopefully turning into stars. That’s what American Idol is all about, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

TVLINE | One other thing: When we spoke in May, the subject of theme nights and song clearances came up. Do you think we might see some new or different themes in Season 11? Are you already working on those?
We’re looking for areas to do the middle shows — [the post-Hollywood round] we did with the Beatles’ Love show in Vegas. We’re looking at what other stars we can do that with. But there are really great songs through all periods of time. The key is the melody. And it’s been tough [to find songs] from perhaps the middle of the ’90s [onward], where we lost the melody out of our songs. It’s starting to come back: Gaga, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo are bringing melodies back to music, and it’s gonna get easier again I hope. But we’re always going to have to go back in time for songs that can hit home on a minute-and-a-half performance.

TVLINE | What about packaging themes a little differently, like, say, “No Ballads Allowed” or “Breakup Anthems” or “One-Hit Wonders”?
We looked at Prom Night, we looked at Love Songs, and Songs with Colors in the Titles, that allow people to be creative. But at the end of the day, Haley’s biggest votes came when she sang “I Who Have Nothing” by diva Shirley Bassey and “House of the Rising Sun” which goes back to the Animals. And add to that she did “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele and Gaga’s “You and I.” So if you’re a good singer you can make the song be great.

TVLINE | Would you consider list of 10 or 12 banned songs, so we don’t ever again have to hear “Against All Odds” on the Idol stage?
At the moment I’m sick of “Rolling in the Deep”: Everyone wants to do that at the moment for their audition.

TVLINE | But seriously, it would be the most awesome idea ever if you banned 11 songs from the live rounds in Season 11, the ones that have been beaten into the ground.
[Laughs] Well, Mike, if you want to write down and send me 11 songs that you don’t want to hear again, I will put them through to the committee.

TVLINE | No joke: I am going to get you that list in a flash.
[Laughs] I’ll probably get it in the next 30 seconds, right?

Got any ideas for the “Banned Songs” list, or opinions on Nigel’s early Season 11 thoughts? Sound off in the comments! And for all my reality news and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!