Nigel Lythgoe Talks Emmys: If American Idol Doesn't Win This Year, It Never Will

It’s an honor just to be nominated, but if Nigel Lythgoe is being completely honest, he’d really like American Idol to take home the trophy for Outstanding Reality Show Competition at the 2011 Emmys. After all, Fox’s long-running singing competition has been nominated for eight years running without a single win. So you’ll forgive the show’s executive producer for getting something of a Susan Lucci complex as Idol awaits TV’s biggest night on Sept. 18 to hear the outcome of nomination No. 9. TVLine caught up with Lythgoe to talk about whether he thinks Idol can actually win, as well as his Emmy hopes for Ryan Seacrest and Cat Deeley — respective hosts of Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, which is also produced by Lythgoe.

TVLINE | I guess the eternal question is this: When is American Idol finally going to take home the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Show Competition?
I wish I could answer that question! [Laughs] I will say that if we don’t get it this year, then I don’t believe we ever will. We were in everybody’s face for Season 10 and we got such good feedback that I would’ve thought if anyone is gonna win this year, it should be Idol, if I’m being totally honest. And I’m not one of these people who says, “Oh I’m happy just to be nominated.” No, I wanna win — no question about that. [Laughs]

TVLINE | Well maybe you were happy just to be nominated the first time around, but this is your ninth consecutive nod, and yet you’re 0 for 8. That has to be a little frustrating.
Yeah, yeah it is. But it’s become a bit of a joke among us all. We all say, “We’re not gonna win it. Amazing Race will win it again.” And each year our muscles tighten just as they say that first syllable: “Am…” Will they finally say “Ammmerican Idol” or just “Ammmazing Race“?

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TVLINE | Maybe you should ship the contestants to an international location one week…
Yes! And have them running around!

TVLINE | I do hear people say that Amazing Race deserves to win because it does these international shoots and all these crazy locations, but Idol is no slouch. You pack in so much footage over the course of a season — from audition rounds to Hollywood Week to the actual live shows. And it’s such a behemoth beast of a production, I’m always shocked when it doesn’t get recognized for that difficulty.
I’m always shocked we even get it done, honestly. Certainly this last season, because they put us to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule, and then for the finale put us on Tuesday-Wednesday, that meant that we lost a day in producing the two finale shows. Don’t forget we [produce] three hours of live television in three days. And that finale was a helluva finale this year. There were major stars and incredible sets to put up live. Just building Lady Gaga’s tower was tough: That thing was still shaking when the commercial break began, and the guys just ran off and left it. [Laughs] We had three days to produce that. When you look at what that show is, it’s like the Grammys, and tougher than the Oscars to produce to be frank with you, because you’re dealing with different acts, different styles of music, and so on. We should win an award just for that — never mind the rest of the series!

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TVLINE | Which episode will you submit?
Idol is three or four different programs, as you well know, which makes the decision so difficult. There’s the initial circus: The auditions. That’s all an incredible amount of work because of the hundreds and thousands of auditionees. And we’ve worked out a completely different process of how to digitize and where to stack them — very much like film bins. Once we get that number on a contestant’s wrist, they go straight in that system and the editors literally treat [the contestants] like film clips and put them in that bin. So if we say, “We love that kid, No. 3975,” we can go to the No. 3975 bin and then everything that kid has done since walking in the stadium is there for us to look at. People don’t realize. It’s been done over the years by Chainsaw Edit and Bill DeRonde, who has devised this incredible system. And that process of bringing 20,000 kids [from one city] down to the 15 or 20 you see in a given episode, well, it takes a while. [Laughs] And we’ve got Hollywood Week, which is totally different. And this year we had the Green Mile episode, which we filmed in an airplane hangar, we filmed at the Beatles Love show [in Vegas], and each one of them is done in one or two days of production, then post-produced. Then you get into the live shows, and the following day reacting to America’s vote and creating that results show on the day. So again this isn’t a post-produced show like Amazing Race. We’re actually only like Amazing Race when we do the initial audition tours. Totally different animals all exist within the same American Idol body. Then we get to the finale, which like I said, I’d equate to the Grammys, the CMAs, anything else they spend months producing and we do in three days — without knowing the result or where we’re going with that. It’s a very strange beast, and I’ve never worked on a show like it, which incarnates or morphs into different programs.

TVLINE | So that makes it pretty mind-boggling when you’re picking an episode for the Emmy voters to screen.
It does.

TVLINE | Which one did you end up choosing?
In the end they chose a results show, a fun one where Casey was saved.

TVLINE | Yes! That’s exactly the one I would’ve picked.
Because it’s memorable for the different things that occurred during the telecast. But it [required] no more or no less in production than any other show we did. It’ll stand out in people’s minds, though. And I would hope they put the [season] finale in, even though it’s not really a reality game show at that point; it’s far more a music special. At the end of the day, you can just hope that the academy members realize how tough it is in the 10th season to resuscitate a prorgam that people told me before I rejoined it, “It’s all over now that Simon Cowell’s gone.”

TVLINE | The other surprising oversight in terms of Emmy recognition for the show is that Ryan Seacrest has never won in his category. When I interviewed fellow nominee Cat Deeley a few weeks ago, she said she thinks it’s because he makes his job look so easy.
I think there’s a feeling that Idol is really successful and why does it deserve anything else? And everyone’s been swept up in that feeling, including Ryan, who beyond the shadow of a doubt is the best presenter out there. And I’m just thoroughly delighted Cat Deeley is now in that category too. For me, she’s the second-best presenter.

TVLINE | If you ran the Emmys, and you could score a second Emmy for Idol this year — considering the show is up for 10 in total — which one would it be?
The other trophy I want is for So You Think You Can Dance. [Laughs] Seriously, any recognition Idol gets, we’re proud of. And really, it’s not a case of “It deserves this or it deserves that!” Even with the Emmys, I would be happy to win it, and without question I want to win it, but does it deserve to win it? Does anybody deserve that much praise? But I guess I’d say lighting: That’s a tremendous part of the show. And we got a new director this year, and the camera boys worked awfully hard. And then there’s editing. Where do I start? Those early episodes where they get 9,000 notes from 9,000 different executives — those editors work their socks off. I think everybody on the show would like to see the show win it. And I truly believe if you asked all the individuals who’ve been nominated — if you gave them the choice of winning their own Emmy or having American Idol the show get the trophy — I believe every one would say they want to see American Idol win. Of course, that could be a load of crap. [Laughs]

The Emmys will air on Sunday, Sept. 18 on Fox. For all my reality TV news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.