American Idol EP Talks Season 14: Powerhouse Mentoring, New Song Mix and Battle-Tested Contestants

American Idol executive producer Trish Kinane was on hand for the taping of Season 14’s Top 24 performances in Detroit (airing tonight and Thursday, 8/7c on Fox) — and she’s sounding sunnier than an uptempo Jackson 5 jam.

“This year, the contestants were at a more advanced level of performance and ability before they took the [Detroit] stage than the [Season 13’s Top 12] were for their live performance shows,” she says — and the massive year-to-year difference is hardly accidental.

“We’re putting a lot more progress and process into the show this year,” explains Kinane, pointing to the House of Blues showcase and the Top 48’s sit-down interviews with the judges. “And now, Detroit gives us a chance to see how they deal with going on the road, being tired, having to work through losing their voices and having colds.”

AI_S14_TOP12GUYS_digis_hires1These additional steps, she adds, should help avoid Season 13’s charisma sinkhole — where a number of talented finalists either fell apart or failed to improve once the live voting rounds began. Kinane says she’s also hoping incoming mentor Scott Borchetta — President and CEO of the Big Machine Label Group and the man who helped launch Taylor Swift — will be another secret weapon in the Season 14 arsenal.

TVLine caught up with Kinane to dish the plague of overdone songs like “I Have Nothing” and “Against All Odds,” viewer complaints about J.Lo closeups and the types of behind-the-scenes moments that might wind up online once the show moves to a once-per-week schedule.

Scott-Borchetta_0075_hires1TVLINE | Let’s talk about incoming Season 14 mentor Scott Borchetta. I always feel like the real reason Idol has remained a hit all these years is because it really does produce artists who end up on our radios. The last two seasons, that didn’t happen at all — but I’d argue it’s at least partially because neither winner [Candice Glover or Caleb Johnson] got much of a push from their label post-show. There was also a feeling that maybe there wasn’t much mentoring happening during their seasons. Bringing in Scott seems like a way to take care of both ends of that equation. How much discussion did you have prior to hiring him about what your goals were?
Scott’s not just going to join the show for no good reason, so we had a lot of discussion with him. We wanted somebody who was really invested in what happens to the kids after they make the top 10, after they become the American Idol, and to have somebody involved in the process from very early on. Scott joined the contestants in Hollywood Week, although he wasn’t on camera then. But in terms of the process of whittling the kids down, he was there for all of that.

Scott doesn’t want to screw this up. He wants to get a star at the end of this. He’s very ambitious. He loves the purity of the Idol process — taking raw kids and working with them and helping them develop. He’s passionate about that. He’s putting in huge amounts of time, much more than I was even expecting. Actually, while I’m talking to you, I’ve had two emails from him. He’s been in L.A. and Detroit working with the kids. He doesn’t just turn up for a filming session. In fact, pretty much everything he’s done so far hasn’t been on camera at all. He’s a great addition.

What you’re saying about making superstars is very interesting, too, because 10, 12, 14 years ago, YouTube didn’t even exist, so it was a different process for finding and making a superstar. Now, one of the things Scott and I have been talking about a lot is how, if you did Mariah or Whitney or any of those big songs with the big notes, the audience just laps it up and that’s great. But what actually makes a hit recording artist nowadays isn’t necessarily that the way it used to be with Kelly, Carrie, Jennifer Hudson, those sorts of singers.

So, right from the auditions, it’s a question of how you put the most talented people through — but also with an eye to, “Are these going to be people that can sell records at the end of it?” Because that’s what this process is about. There’s no easy answer yet. There are lots of shades of gray.

TVLINE | Do you envision showing a lot of screen time of what Scott is doing with the contestants?
After [Top 12], we’ll only have the Wednesday show. On the whole, it’s a fantastic thing, but it means there’s going to be less time to show what Scott does with the kids. It’s the sort of stuff that actually would have made very meaty, interesting packages in a results show, and while we’ll have some [mentoring on Wednesdays], I think a lot more will end up online. We’ll be filming it, and it would be a shame to waste it.

AI_S14_TOP12GIRLS_digis_hires1TVLINE | It’s exciting to hear you say Scott is spending even more time than you’d anticipated. Is he going to come in early in the process? Last year, a lot of TVLine readers grumbled that the mentoring packages we saw were filmed on Mondays — way too late to change the song or the arrangement.
Actually, last year, Randy [Jackson] was always there on the Thursday and Friday when decisions were being made, but that wasn’t what was being filmed. But the email Scott is sending me now, we’re already talking about Week 3 of the live shows, the theme and what the kids’ song choices are. And before Detroit, when the kids were in L.A., we spent hours on the phone with each one of them talking through their song choices, why they were choosing them, asking them to think about something else. A lot of these kids, they’re so young, they just don’t know any references of any artists you’re talking about. [Laughs] In terms of the filming, though, Scott’s going to basically up sitcks from Nashville and base himself in L.A. for the whole period of the live shows. He’s going to be around all the time — and we’ll be filming what he’s doing.

TVLINE | I used to beg Nigel Lythgoe back when he was exec-producing to institute a Banned Songs List — the 15 or 20 we’ve heard so many times on Idol and now on The Voice, too. “I Have Nothing” or “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” for example. Have you guys ever thought about saying to the kids that something’s been covered so many times it’s just off the table, you can’t cover it?
I think there’s quite a few like that actually. Our music supervisor could give you a whole list of ones that we steer the kids away from. I mean, in the end, we do let them choose what they want, but it doesn’t do them any favors if they’re covering a song that’s been done so much. Again, last year we did a lot more contemporary music in the show and maybe it was a little bit too much, because we’ve got this 50-plus core audience. But also this year in the ratings we’re seeing a big rise in the teen audience. And it’s sticking. You know, that thing that car commercials do really well where they take a song that’s familiar to older people and then kids listen to it and go, “Wow, that’s an amazing song!” as if it’s new.

We’re trying to look at some of those songs — not the ones that are being covered endlessly. They’re ones that seem fresh, but actually they’re older. I do get your point, and it is something we’re looking at. More than once this season, we’ll be letting America vote on what songs they think the kids should sing. I follow all the stuff online [related to the show]. America pretty much gets it right, and they make pretty sensible and pretty interesting suggestions. It would be stupid not to take some heed of that.

AI14_24perf_1213_hires1TVLINE | The other thing that I always find interesting is when people do something unexpected with arrangements. Even back to Seasons 6 and 7, Blake Lewis covering “You Give Love a Bad Name” or David Cook covering “Billie Jean,” and doing them in ways we hadn’t heard before. Does Scott have the institutional knowledge of the show? Has he watched these things that have worked in the past and really sort of captured the zeitgeist? How much are you guys going to push the kids to be inventive not just in terms of what they’re covering, but how they’re covering them?
It depends on the kids. It has to come from them. There’s not Rickey Minor or me or Scott or me going, “Hey, why don’t you do this cover or that,” because that isn’t from them. But there are a couple contestants this year that have got that in them and are already starting to do it. Actually, in Detroit, Joey Cook did an amazing version of a Keith Urban song with the accordion. I was watching Keith on the monitors and for the first few bars, it didn’t seem to be ringing a bell with him or striking a chord. Then he went, “Oh my God, she’s doing my song!” It was so different and so original and so unusual. He just threw his hands back and fell off the chair. It was such a good moment because she did something totally different with it — but not different for the sake of it.

If you’re going to mess with some great songs, you’ve got to be able to do something better or quirky or original. Certainly, as a viewer, I’d be really annoyed by messing with a song for the sake of it. “You’ve taken a fantastic Adele song and screwed it up? Don’t do that!” On the other hand, if you take it and do something great with it, some of the classic Idol moments have been those rearrangements. Certainly a few kids this season are up to it. We also have some good performers as well. There’s a bit of movement, a bit of dancing, a bit of presentation going on this year. There’s pretty good variety in terms of musical style, how the kids look, their personalities and the different types of approaches they have. They’re a pretty interesting bunch.

TVLINE | Will you have the Judges’ Save again this year in Season 14 — especially since you’re down to one night and have to find a way to squeeze in performances and results?
The Judges’ Save is still there. It gives a dramatic moment at the end of the show. I like that bit. And the elimination process is all figured out. We’re not going to have the elimination at the top of the show because that’s really depressing. There’s a couple of ways of doing it; when [you get to the point in the season where] the kids do two songs each, around Top 6, we’ll be changing the method slightly because it’s not right to make somebody sing a song when you know they’re already out.

TVLINE | That’s great to hear. One thing that a lot of our readers pointed out last year that bothered them — and myself, too — was that there were too many close-ups of J. Lo during live performances — to the point where it distracted from connecting with the contestants. Did you hear that at all from viewers and did that make any sense to you?
Was it just her or all of the judges?

idol-jlo-closeupsTVLINE | All the judges, to some degree, but the go-to shot was J.Lo.
I think that was something we thought ourselves when we did a debrief on last season. It’s a tricky one. You have the director in the moment — because live shows go with what’s happening, and of course she’s very animated. She smiles and she’s really enjoying herself. I can see why you would cut to that, but it’s about the contestants first and foremost. On the other hand, you do want to see the judges at some point because you want to know if they’re enjoying it or not, especially if they’ve set something up like, “This week, I’m looking to you to get away from the microphone and move around the stage. Or stop closing your eyes.” As a viewer, I then want to see how they’re reacting to what the kids are doing and whether they’re taking their advice or not. I think it’s a fine balance. Yeah, your [readers] were right. It was a little bit too much, but on the other hand I think you do need some of that.

TVLINE | Will iTunes sales count in voting this year?
The Voice does that, but no, we don’t do that. But the songs will be on iTunes.

TVLINE | One other question for you about going to one night a week: Will there still be room for alumni performances? I feel like those are a nice reminder, subtly, that there are still alumni from the show who crush it in the real world. Plus, they’re just fun to see.
With it just being one show a week, they’re going to be really packed. That’s good, because you’re going to have performances, you’re going to have eliminations. We’ll have some celebrity mentors. There’s going to be a lot in the show, but there’s not very much time. Having said that, we will definitely be having at least one of our most famous Idols coming back to mentor the kids and perform.

TVLINE | Do you know who that is already?
One of our most famous, and it’s a woman. [Laughs]

TVLINE | OK, I guess we can take that one of two ways. [Laughs] So, to wrap things up, what are your hopes for the franchise at this point? It’s Season 14 and you’ve settled into 10 to 11 million viewers, you hit a 2.8 demo last week. What do you want in terms of ratings and in terms of pop cultural significance?
Because Idol had such height and it was a true phenomenon when it was getting 30 million viewers, anything less than that can give rise to those headlines of,”it’s not what it used to be.” The ratings are what they are. …But Idol is the purest of these [reality competition] formats. It was the original and it still works because it’s got simple Cinderella story of the kid from nowhere through hard work and talent and a bit of luck getting somewhere and having the chance. The Voice is a good show. It’s a game show. It has that sort of angle to it, which makes it different. That’s why I think there’s room for both Idol and The Voice in the market. That’s about it, but there is room for that.

What we’ve done last year and this year is stabilize the show after the Nicki/Mariah year, which was not a good year… This year it’s all about finding really talented kids. That’s the primary focus. The second thing is having a great judging panel that get on with each other; there’s a bit of chemistry going on and they have some fun, but also that they’ve all got credibility. There’s no one on that panel who doesn’t deserve to be there — and they’re not just there because they’re famous.

Then the third thing is to just keep refreshing the production and make it top quality — but not in a way that’s gimmicky. Everything has to have authenticity. I don’t know if your readers have reacted… but we’re not putting the bad [singers] in front of the judges in the way we used to 14 years ago, just for a laugh. It was hilarious in the beginning, but that started to get a bit annoying to me. Still, it’s nice to have humor in the show. This year, we decided to expose the audition process a bit: People know at this point that Jennifer, Keith and Harry don’t sit there through 10,000 auditions. Why not show that a bit? This year, we’ve shown the producer’s tables [inside the stadiums] and everybody queuing up to see the producers first. That to me is the natural place to show the bad singers, because people do turn up and think they’re marvelous. But on the other hand it seems manipulative to let the [terrible singers] keep going and then put them in front of the judges.

TVLINE | I loved that you guys showed that. I was surprised, because this was the first year where there was an acknowledgement that the cattle call and the callbacks in front of the judges are two very different things. Do you feel like you’re going to show a little more behind the curtain now that Scott is there mentoring, too?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being honest. You don’t want to spoil the magic, but yeah, it’s 14 years on, and there’ve been a number of these shows. I don’t see any reason not to show some of that. On the other hand, you don’t want to do it so much that you take away from what we’re really here for, which is talented kids singing in front of great judges.