American Idol 2008 Returns
'American Idol' returns
But just as sweeps month looms, the ground suddenly trembles, ripples radiate across TV nation's coffee mugs. The survivors gaze in the direction of distant thunder from the sands of the desert and wonder what rough beast seems to be slouching toward a new birthday.
Yes, television, "American Idol" has come again.
On Tuesday, the Fox juggernaut roars back onto the airwaves, still sending the rivals fleeing for cover (ABC moved "Lost" to Thursday nights to avoid a head-to-head battle). And proving that fortune truly favors the bold, after what many described as a shaky sixth season (with the franchise showing measurable ratings vulnerability by its finale), the show finds the field emptied of rivals and is greeted by a starving audience eager for proven entertainment value.
Tending to TV's most valuable franchise, the "Idol" team is prepping a season that addresses what they openly admit were missteps last season.
Speaking by phone astride Barbados' Green Monkey golf course, "Idol" co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe basked in his final moments of peace before Season 7's onslaught is unleashed. While the rest of "Idol" nation has slept since Jordin Sparks was crowned champion last May, Lythgoe has been occupied managing two other competition franchise seasons -- "So You Think You Can Dance" (on which he also serves as a judge) and the debutant outing of "The Next Great American Band." But looking ahead to "Idol," he offered some hints at what lies ahead.
The back stories are back
WHILE the drop-bys last season from J.Lo, Bon Jovi and Herman's Hermits' Peter Noone added wild card elements to the proceedings, their visits came at a price. Namely priceless "Idol" air time in a space that had previously been used to showcase contestants' lives and back stories.
"We all felt we made a mistake with 'Idol' by sort of concentrating on the mentors and not so much on the contestants last season," Lythgoe said. "What we did with the 'Dance' show was really push the contestant, and I think it was much better for it. I want to make sure that this season of 'Idol' we don't forget how important it is to concentrate on their stories."
He continued: "the Kellie Picklers, the Kelly Clarksons, the Carrie Underwoods, Bo Bice, all of these people had such great stories, they are really important to us. They are the emotional hooks that bring in other people who aren't just interested in producing the next vocal talent. They want to connect with people and they want that sort of soap opera feel, but knowing this is real life and these kids have been through this in their lives. When you hear about frozen vocal chords and you'll never talk again and here they are singing on a show -- this is magnificent, you know? It's life."
Unfortunately for those pillars of the crumbling recording industry for whom a guest spot on "Idol" is one of the few mega-promotional outlets our culture still offers, the mentor slots fall in the only time available in the tightly packed episodes to feature the taped contestant segments. "The American hour on television is all of 41 minutes and by the time you've sung your songs and Randy says 'dog' five or six times, we're out of time."
"Idol Gives Back," the hybrid telethon/special episode in support of America's and the world's poor, will return. However, to avoid the awkward situation last year when the day of good feeling was nearly spoiled by the requisite duty to kick someone off the show (a duty they sidestepped by granting a surprise amnesty), this year's "Give Back" week will feature three nights of "Idol" -- the third being good-will-free so the execution can proceed on schedule.
For the first time this year, the singers will be allowed to play instruments as well. Lythgoe reports that during the Hollywood week final auditions, this maiden attempt met mixed results. Instruments, he says, were used by "about 30% and out of that 30%, I'd say there were only about 10% of them good. So, it's screwed up! It's very difficult to play the drums and sing 'Hooked on a Feeling' at the same time."
In contrast to last season when many felt the talents were slow to emerge from the pack, Lythgoe predicts that this year will see some significant early favorites. "I think there are three outstanding candidates this year, one of whom I think could really become an 'American Idol.' I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's always so difficult to tell. We're blind sometimes until we see them get on in front of the camera and how they hold their nerve. But one of them, I have high hopes for him."
God save the mean
DESPITE complaints last season that the brutality toward the deluded fools who paraded before the judges during the auditions crossed the line into cruelty, Lythgoe says the vitriol will flow freely once again. "In the early part of the show, you know, that sort of cruel streak that we have is very important because, I think, to understand if you're going to be successful in this business, you have to be able to take the knocks and rebound back from it."
With its seventh season, "Idol" is proving it's not just enduring but remarkably stable, preserving the (almost) original on-screen family intact and averting a show-stopping catastrophe that would force a major alteration of the formula. Asked what sort of contingency plans the show has made if any of the above were to change, Lythgoe sighed and protested that this is the last thing they have time to think about.
"I think probably [co-executive producer] Ken [Warwick] and myself will come on and do a couple of bars of 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo.' And I'll try and break-dance; the only thing is I'll probably break my neck. But no, we haven't [made any plans], to be frank with you. No. Put on an old movie."
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"I'm not going to name any names because I always get into trouble for doing that. I might do it in a couple of week's time though. There are luckily three or four very strong guys and three or four very strong girls this year. It's probably going to be one of the most open competitions we've ever had," the Idol judge told reporters during a Wednesday conference call.
"I can't call out a winner at this stage. In my mind I think I have an idea who could make the finals, but I'm not going to give anything away at the moment."
Idol 7 will premiere over the course of two consecutive nights on Tuesday, January 15 and Wednesday, January 16, with both two-hour broadcasts beginning at 8PM ET/PT. As always, Idol will kick-off with audition-episode broadcasts, with the seventh season beginning in Philadelphia.
"I can't remember who came from which city after I've done the auditions. I never can. I watch the shows back then it all comes flooding back. But I can't, at this point, differentiate, for instance, Dallas or Philadelphia," said Cowell. "It's all a bit of a blur to me still. The only who can remember everything amazingly is [fellow judge Paula Abdul]. She has like a photographic memory for these things. But within about two weeks of doing the audition, I can't remember anything. But as I said, when I watch it back, then I remember everything, if that makes sense."
While Cowell said the auditions are a "worthwhile" part of the show, they're apparently not personally enjoyable for the sharp-tongued judge.
"It is becoming increasingly like torture, but you have to give most of the people who come in at least three or four minutes, but it has gotten harder over the years," he explained. "What's amazing, even after seven seasons, and we've had some shockingly bad people this year, is how much they still believe that they're right and I'm wrong and they got more argumentative with me this year. All I'm trying to do is help them."
Still, Cowell said he understands "you have to have that mix" of good and bad "within the show."
"I think that if it was completely sanitized -- the audition process -- that everybody came in and they were just competent, I think it would probably be the more boring show on TV," he said. "So, it's fun for me to watch. It is torture for me to do it."
A hopeful who particularly tortured Cowell was Ricco Barrino, the brother of third-season champ Fantasia Barrino.
"He was terrible... pretty dreadful," commented Cowell. "He can't sing and I think I'm right in saying this. From memory, he was terrible. I remember, 'Oh, great. Fantasia's brother has come in.' It was all fantastic until he started singing and then I think we disputed the fact that he really was Fantasia's brother because he doesn't have his sister's talent."
Cowell said it's talent that's paramount when it comes to Idol.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say that first impressions aren't important. If somebody walks in with a sense of style, it means a lot. At the same time, when someone walks in a hideous outfit, regardless of what they're going to sing, you put off that person," he said. "It still comes down to obviously your singing voice. If you try and sum up what star quality is, it is a sense of style, a sense of knowing who you are, a sense of being an individual and obviously having a good voice. So, it's one part of the package. It's not the most important part, but it's one part of it."
While Cowell commented that "on a show like Idol, I don't think you necessarily want to make change for the sake of change," he did add that it's important to "evolve the process."
"That's what I think you're going to see this year," he added. "You're going to see an improved show with much, much better singers and more interesting contestants."
One reason why viewers should find the contestants more interesting is because Cowell reiterated executive producer Nigel Lythgoe's previous comments that the singers are going to be more of a focus -- not the mentors.
"I think when you run -- particularly a 90-minute, even a two-hour show of American Idol -- you actually haven't got a huge amount of airtime to do an awful lot of stuff with," explained Cowell. "I mean once you've done the judges' comments and the singing, the amount of time given to the film before the contestant sings when you have a mentor. It's very difficult for the audience to get to know much about the person."
Even with sixth-season winner Jordin Sparks, Cowell said he knew very little about her "other than the fact she's a good singer."
"I couldn't really tell you myself, and I was a judge on the show. I think that was also the same with the people who watched the show at home," he said. "We didn't let the audience at home know enough about where they live, what their likes or dislikes were because everything was about their chat with, as you say, [sixth-season mentors Diana Ross or Jennifer Lopez] or whoever it was. I think this year there will be more focus on the contestants and less focus on the person who is mentoring them that particular week. It's a balance, and I think it's the right decision."
In addition to less face time for mentors, Cowell said Idol also received a few "cosmetic changes."
"There will be a new set, which will be good," he said. "They tried a couple of bits and pieces in the Hollywood rounds of having people play instruments, which wasn't particularly a good thing or a bad thing. I don't think it made too much difference because we were lucky enough that the contestants were better, and that was the most important thing."
Cowell said "90% of what happened on the show last year was very good" -- presumably meaning Sanjaya Malakar and Antonella Barba filled the other 10%, helping to put a stronger focus on the seventh-season's crop of talent.
"We are completely and utterly reliant on who walks in the door in terms of the quality of the contestants. So, most of our focus this year was to make sure that we got a better Top 12 and a more interesting Top 12 than what we got last year," he explained. "I'm pretty certain that we have that this year. So, that's the most important thing."
Cowell added he doesn't think Idol will ultimately be impacted by the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike and boasted about the Fox mega-hit's ratings superiority even when the writers were working.
"People still have a choice to watch other channels. We have to be making a better show this year than we did last year. That's the only reason we're going to gain or lose viewers," he explained. "When we found out about the writers' strike, it had absolutely zero impact on us.... With American Idol in the last three or four years, no one has ever put anything up against our show. So, we've always kind of been out there on our own. So, our success is down to the quality of our programs. I don't think it's going to have an impact on us either way."
One factor that makes Idol different from other shows, according to Cowell, is its "unpredictability," which is always aided by fellow judges Abdul and Randy Jackson.
"We know each other well enough that we can argue with each other. Nothing really is premeditated on this show. I can remember last year somebody saying that the arguments are planned in advance or something," Cowell correctly recalled. "We see each other normally 10 minutes before the show goes live on air. Nobody knows what they're going to do, what they're going to say, and I think it's that unpredictability that makes this show different from the others. So, we'll just try and do what we've done previously again and hope people like it, albeit that this year we'll have hopefully some better talent as well."
Cowell also reiterated that he still intends to hang-up his tight T-shirts once his current contract expires.
"Nothing is going to last forever. I think the exit point to a point is determined by the public who eventually are going to get sick to death of me, if they haven't already," he said. "I'd always, in my mind, kind of thought I would go up until the end of my contract, which would mean two more seasons after this one, which would have made it nine in total and nine years is probably enough to inflict on anyone. So that's what I sort of have in my mind. Can the show exist without me? Absolutely. It'll probably get better."
One show that could have used Cowell was Fox's The Next Great American Band, which wasted away in a Friday night time period.
"I never saw the band show," Cowell candidly told reporters. "I think I saw about 10 minutes of it or something. It's tough doing band shows. It's a whole different ballgame to doing solo artists, which is why I've never done it before and probably wouldn't."
A solo artist who could use Cowell's help is Britney Spears, who he gave an open invitation to.
"She's welcome to call me anytime," he said. "I genuinely think, if I sat down with Britney, I would, number one, remind her of all the good things in her life, which are her kids, her money, her success -- everything. So, I'd try and give her a sense of perspective. Then I'd take her out to where she's living at the moment and ask her to go and live with her family and live normally for six months because -- if you can live normally and do normal things -- you'll suddenly find that the Paparazzi aren't camped outside your door everyday. Most importantly, just give her a sense of perspective because it looks to me at the moment that she's out of control and she has to have someone in her life who she has to listen to."