American Idol: Nigel Lythgoe Talks 'White Guys With Guitars,' Ratings Declines, Twitter Peeves

nigel lythgoeIf you think Nigel Lythgoe has an easy job, consider this: Despite producing the No. 2 show of the 2011-2012 TV season in terms of total viewers and the coveted 18-49 demo, American Idol‘s executive producer is still in the unenviable position of defending the show’s ratings and creative direction in the face of public criticism from his own boss.

We caught up with Lythgoe prior to Idol‘s Season 11 finale to get his thoughts on how the season had played out, why female contestants can’t win seem to take home the top prize, what he thinks of his high-profile singing-show competitors, and whether or not Idol‘s judges sometimes get too enamored of their favorite contestants to be able to provide them with good, honest feedback. Oh, and of course, we got him to open up about his ongoing pas de deux with his Twitter “morons.”

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TVLINE | Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly recently told reporters that Idol‘s Season 11 ratings dipped “more than anticipated” and that in retrospect the show should’ve made more creative tweaks to stay competitive in the crowded reality singing competition space. How did you feel about those remarks, especially considering that in many ways, Season 11 felt like a genuine creative success?
I’m shocked that he would say we didn’t anticipate that. We always stayed away from [airing] two seasons of American Idol [per calendar year], knowing that ratings would dip, and the public would get tired. It’s just the very nature of offering the audience too much [of a particular thing]. Now, if you’re going to do The X Factor on the same [network] as American Idol, that’s like two American Idols back-to-back. So, yes, I’m shocked that they thought that the ratings wouldn’t dip. Plus, The Voice is in the mix now, too. There’s just a lot more on offer today, and kids don’t always watch the television anymore. The world has changed in the 11 years that we’ve been doing this.

TVLINE | Nobody is drawing 25 million viewers per week.
They’re not. That’s a fact. So, when Kevin says we’ve got to do new things next year, what are the changes? The format is a very simple format. Kids audition for us. Their talent is what brings people in to watch the show. Do we change the format? Maybe we should do it under water while basket weaving? It surprises me that there’s some kind of challenge to the producers to make it more exciting. What do they think we do? Sit on our asses not worrying about the show? I know, let’s watch the ratings dip down, that will be fun, won’t it? I get very annoyed with people, especially executives that should know what they’re talking about, making statements like that, to be frank with you.

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TVLINE | Let’s talk about a phrase that comes up a lot with regard to Idol, a phrase that makes me sort of uncomfortable: White Guys With Guitars. There’s no denying the fact that white male contestants who play the guitar have dominated the show for several years running. So what I’m wondering is, do you stress about getting a more diverse roster of winners from the show?
The last few years, without question, it has been that way. I always get the comments — and we get it on [So You Think You Can] Dance, too –“Oh, the boys are always going to win, and the girls are going to be cut off one by one.” Season 11 of [Idol], that’s been the first year I [couldn’t have told] you who’d definitely be in the finale. We never really had one person win two weeks running.

TVLINE | But is it a concern for Idol, as a franchise, to have a similar type of singer winning year after year, and to not have a female winner for five years running now?
There’s nothing you can do about it. When you say to America, you vote, the only thing that can be changed is the voting system. And I would hope that next year we would look at that.

TVLINE | I have to say, though, that unlike your main competitors, Idol is the one program that once the live shows begin, the power — except for the Judges’ Save and the Wild Card — is entirely in the hands of the public. The judges don’t get to add their scores to America’s. They’re not deciding who goes home from the Bottom 2 contestants. They’re not doing instant eliminations. And that makes Idol unique.
It totally is in viewers’ hands. We are informed how the voting works: AT&T informs Telescope, Telescope informs us. There are always accusations, the latest one being “The Philippines are voting!” Well, God bless them! [Laughs] But you know, I am assured that there is no power voting every week.

TVLINE | Let’s talk about the audition rounds. I thought that they started out really strong this year — front-loaded with talent, and not nearly as many gimmicky contestants.
We had the talent. We only do gimmicky contestants when we haven’t got the talent, in truth. We’ve always tried to veer away from the kids who are playing you along, college students who just want to act stupid to get on the show. Those are different from the singers who are deluded. [I’d argue] there’s nothing wrong with [showing] the kids who just totally believe that they are the best thing since sliced bread. “What do you mean you’re going to say ‘no’ to me? I’m fantastic! My parents told me I’m wonderful!”

TVLINE | Have you ever thought about switching from a city-by-city format for auditions to organizing auditions by, say, blocks of country singers or soul singers? Somehow shaking up how you present auditions?
No, I haven’t, but that’s an interesting idea, and certainly one that’s worth discussing. The whole thing about American Idol, though, is that we go to them. That’s what our record companies stopped doing with their A&R departments, and now they just expect people to come to them. Plus, we don’t just want country singers, and we don’t want to pigeonhole contestants too easily. At this moment in time, it’s much easier to go to a city and say. “American Idol is in town.” That’s the magnet.

TVLINE | One new thing we saw this year was a greater number of contestants returning to audition who’d been pretty prominently featured — only to get cut — in prior seasons: Hollie Cavanagh, DeAndre Brackensick, Colton Dixon, even Baylie Brown. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Did you feel like maybe having a few of those familiar faces might hook in Idol fans who were on the fence about dropping the show from their DVR lineup?
No. In fact, I don’t think of Idol like So You Think You Can Dance, where I welcome people to come back because that extra year really does improve them. With American Idol, if you’re tone deaf, you’re going to sing just as badly as you sang the year before. And we’re a little reticent in saying that [a particular contestant is] a returnee. In Season 11, we thought, “Oh, we’ve really got too many coming back.” But when you look at the auditions the year before, the judges were saying, “We really like you, but we don’t think you’re right for us yet.” What is it that Steven [Tyler] says? “You need to marinate a little more, or you need to bake a little more in the oven.” It’s true. And especially Joshua [Ledet] — we showed his [Season 10] audition [late in Season 11], and also with Hollie, as you rightly say. With Baylie Brown, she auditioned four five years ago. Simon [Cowell] didn’t like her at all, and so we lost her. And we do lose good people sometimes. The producers sit there too going, “Oh, you can’t get rid of them!” But that’s the fun of American Idol for all of us. It is all subjective. We all have opinions. And that certainly applies to song choice. And that’s why I refuse to let anybody choose the kids’ songs. The kids have got to choose their own songs, because everybody has an opinion. You can’t turn around and say, ‘Oh that’s not a good song.’ Not for you, it’s not.

TVLINE | I want to talk a little about the judges’ panel this year. Overall, they seemed much, much more willing to give constructive feedback, pointing out things like Jessica’s movement on stage, or Hollie’s connection to the lyrics. Even Steven, who did not really have a lot to say other than “beautiful” last year, seems to have made some kind of attempt to be more present. Was it a concerted effort? Did you talk to the judges about being more specific with their feedback — not just labeling everything as shades of great — going into season 11?
We’ve taken quite a bit of criticism about the judges being a little vanilla, even lately. My feeling is, as artists they are always going to couch any criticism, purely and simply because they’ve taken the critiques themselves over the years. They don’t want to think that they are being cruel to anybody. So, they are constantly going to come from a place of, that was wonderful, that was beautiful, but maybe you should do this or that. Whereas Jimmy [Iovine] or Simon would come from a place of being a record executive, so they’re constantly thinking, “I’ll invest in you, but how much money are you going to make me?” It’s the total business side of it. They don’t mind saying “you’re out of tune, pack your bags, you’re going home tomorrow to go see the singing teacher.” That’s just where their brains are at.

TVLINE | But I’m talking about Jennifer and Steven, specificially, trying harder to be constructive.
They are trying really hard and I think on a lot of occasions succeeding, and Randy, in saying how they can rethink a piece. Read the lyrics first. Understand what your song is. And when I look around at other shows and look for how contestants are being critiqued, they’re not!

TVLINE | And from where I’m sitting, the Idol judges don’t seem to make it about themselves as much, which is encouraging.
Apart from Randy who’s worked with everybody in the business. [Laughs]

TVLINE | On that subject, though, some of your competitors spend so much time on interpersonal drama between the judges that it takes the focus away from the actual contestants, when those contestants are the real reason for tuning in.
On [The Voice], there’s great chemistry between Blake and Adam, and that makes me smile. But again, are they giving enough to the contestants? I don’t know. It doesn’t really show. With The X Factor, that’s about the judges as well. Our judges, in truth, really do want to be No. 1, and they care for the contestants, because it’s their reputations on the line, too. They’re very proud of who they’ve found this year, and they really want to see them succeed. But what does America ultimately want? I don’t think, nowadays, that America wants to see us bring kids onto the television and slowly chop their legs from underneath them. I really don’t. I think they want to see somebody that comes on, sometimes a little raw, a little amateurish, and watch them grow across the season, to get better and better and better. They want to see the kid who was flipping burgers one day go on to this huge success, like the Kelly Clarksons and Carrie Underwoods and Scotty McCreerys. That’s perfect.

TVLINE | On the flip side, though, I sometimes think it’s problematic when you have a scenario like the judges overpraising Joshua with the constant stream of standing ovations, or their failure to call out Phillip when he’s been off key. I mean, we actually had a case of Phillip saying a few weeks ago in a package, “My brother-in-law said ‘Time of the Season’ was really rough.” And yet for that same performance, the judges were all like, “Great job!” “Perfect!” Do you worry that at a certain point in the season, J.Lo, Randy, and Steven get so mired in their favorites, that they can’t identify their flaws?
That could well be true, Michael. What I would say is, when you’re in that studio and Joshua sings up a storm, you cannot stop yourself standing up. You just cannot stop yourself. He is that good. Further, what I think they admire is that Phillip is his own man. He does change the song up. It is intentional when he doesn’t sing the right tune. He isn’t singing the wrong tune because he doesn’t know it, he is doing it intentionally. I think as musicians they admire that. “Time of the Season” was extremely rough and, yeah, we’re shocked sometimes. At the same time, it’s always been like that. It’s not just these three judges. We’ve been shocked when Simon didn’t like a certain singer, or when we expected him to kill someone, and suddenly he’d smile and say, “That’s fantastic.” Again, that’s subjective, and that’s all part of the enjoyment of Idol.

TVLINE | Do you think and worry a lot about the contestants’ post-Idol careers? Because the one thing that really separates Idol from its competitors is that you really do launch a lot of folks who aren’t simply destined for the bargain bin a week after their albumns come out. That’s really a cornerstone, I think, for why people come back to the show every year.
Do I stress about it? No, I don’t stress about it because I’m already thinking about the next crop of kids, and they deserve our undivided attention. I do love the validation when they are successful. And I get annoyed when the record company, in my opinion, gives them the wrong music to sing. The best example I can give you of that is Ruben Studdard. I believe they just said, “Oh, you’re black, you should be singing urban music,” rather than [envisioning] this wonderful sort of crossover artist that he was. He was singing Neil Sedaka and the Bee Gees songs beautifully — in a sort of Donny Hathaway- Luther Vandross way. They just put him in this [narrow] category, which was a shame to me.

TVLINE | Speaking of song choice, why is it that certain songs get trotted out year after year after year on Idol. “I Have Nothing” or “Without You” or whatnot. Why can’t we get new songs? .
It’s the [contestants’] parents, I think. Their parents know this song or that song. [The kids] look at [a theme like] The ’60s and go, “Oh, what is this?” We try and offer them tons of stuff, but the moment you start doing that, they will look at you like, “Okay, I don’t know that one.” A lot of times, unless it’s been covered more recently, like “All By Myself” or “Without You,” the contestants just don’t know those songs. Maybe they’ve heard a few Beatles songs. [This season], we did some broader themes. An entire decade of music is pretty broad. Songs that I wish I’d written. What inspired you? What do you relate to? What lyrics do you feel like you wish you’d written down? What melody do you wish you’d come up with? Those are big, broad categories to allow the kids to sing great songs, and songs they want to sing.

TVLINE | Do you watch your competitors a lot?
If they’re good.

TVLINE | Okay, specifically do you watch The X Factor and The Voice?
Yes. I’ve watched both. And Dancing with the Stars, too. The X Factor was magnificent in production. And certainly it got us to really look at our set and look at our production. What I always wanted to make sure of, though, was that we didn’t lose our contestants within the production.

TVLINE | How do you know the right scale? That is one thing Idol does very well. It gets that scale right. Somehow, your contestants remain the focus, and I felt like with X Factor, in particular, there were times they’d just disappear up there on the stage.
I didn’t say that. [Laughs]

TVLINE | But seriously, what’s the secret?
We do focus on the talent. The camera shots can really help that. You know, you don’t want to just keep taking wide angles. I’m not particularly interested in the audience. I am happy that they are there, and they give a great atmosphere. But I don’t need to see them when the kid is singing.

TVLINE | This has been a year, at least in my opinion, where the production itself didn’t seem to have noticeably favored any particulat contestant. It felt more like an even playing field, if that makes any sense.
You wouldn’t say that if you read my Twitter replies. All the morons attack it. Here’s the thing: The television producers, of which I include myself, don’t give a damn who wins this show. The only thing we’re interested in is turning out a fabulous show for people to watch. We get no money from the record companies or anything else. Thank goodness. Because, you know, there might be every reason to be swayed if that were true. We don’t care who wins. Even our favorites. Other than that,  we just want the best people to be there at the end. We get involved with, “Oh, how could America not vote for them?” We’re human too. But at the end of the day, whichever one [of the Season 11 Top 3] won, I’d be really happy for them, and to be frank, the other two — because I think they’ll all get recording contracts.

How much do you read your Twitter @-replies from viewers and fans?
Too much. I sleep badly, so when I wake up, I just lie in bed and read them. I keep getting “Stop shouting at me!” because I write in all caps, and I think to myself, “Don’t be stupid!” Plus, it’s the wrong way around in Twitter. You’re supposed to put what you want to say, and then after that, what you’re responding to. Why would you want to do that? If I could, I’d make my reply blue.

So you’re just using caps to differentiate your remarks from what you’re responding to.
Yes, exactly. I also get people Tweeting me all the time, “Thank goodness for Michael Slezak. He knows what themes you should be doing!” To which I say, “Michael F****** Slezak? Come on!” [Laughs] But the thing is, Michael, you actually care. And I don’t understand people who aren’t passionate about what they do. Otherwise it’s work. And why would you want to work?

What do you think of Nigel’s take on Season 11 of Idol, and the overall future of the program? Sound off below, and for all my post-season Idol goodness — including interviews with the Top 5 and plenty of other fun stuff — follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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