On the eve of American Idol‘s Season 11 Hollywood Week adventures, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe fielded conference call questions from TV journalists. And though we were politely urged to keep it to Idol, the queries stretched just a leeeetle bit to encompass X-Factor, Smash, The Voice and the future of rising entertainment mogul Mr. Ryan Seascrest.
Straight out of the gate, Lythgoe revealed that last year’s much-admired — and blessedly effective — contestant mentor uber-producer Jimmy Iovine would be back, along with other guest mentors he wouldn’t name. Surprisingly — at least to me — he also compared Iovine to Idol abdicator Simon Cowell in terms of financial ambition.
“His thought behind everything is, ‘Can you make me money?’ Lythgoe opined of Cowell. ” And I am not condemning him for that because Jimmy Iovine is exactly like that.” Other than that, Lythgoe mostly sidestepped the subject of Cowell, his former business ally, whose X Factor suffered under Cowell’s own ratings-prediction bluster and is currently undergoing a massive makeover. As for Factor and other singing competitions stealing Idol’s ratings thunder and leading to viewer fatigue, Lythgoe noted that American Idol is still America’s favorite show.
“After 11 years, I’m thrilled with these ratings,” Lythgoe said. “We’re constantly compared against ourselves and against our own ratings. Am I worried about our ratings? I’m worried getting our show right.”
With Factor also airing on Fox, Lythgoe said he couldn’t blame viewers for feeling like there were two seasons of Idol a year — something he always intended to avoid to keep fans hungry for more. “We always said we were not going to do two series of Idol a year,” Lythgoe said. “Now with the X Factor there, it does seems like there are two seasons of Idol. And now with The Voice — and there are others waiting — of course there is going to be viewer fatigue.”
Still, Lythgoe does give cautious props to his NBC competition.”My thoughts on The Voice are I think it’s a fun format,” he said. “It’s very gimmicky, which is very interesting at this moment in time. I particularly like the relationship between Blake [Shelton] and Adam [Levine]. Other than that, I think they need stronger talent. But we’ll see.”
Lythgoe is justifiably pleased to point out that Idol‘s own superstar Kelly Clarkson is being tapped to serve as a mentor on The Voice, while Season 5 finalist Katharine McPhee is starring in The Peacock’s new Glee competitor Smash — though he’s inclined to give the victory to his fellow FOX offering. “I’m not positive America is going to necessarily get a musical show at this time without the campery of Glee.”
Lythgoe also noted that “my other program, So You Think You Can Dance, is feeding Dancing With the Stars.” Indeed, DWTS dance pros Lacey Schwimmer, Chelsea Hightower and Dimitri Chaplin are all SYTYCD alum.
As for what he could share about Hollywood Week and the rest of the upcoming season, Lythgoe did reveal that last season’s Beatles week would give way to a week devoted to ’50s and ’60s music — a la Elvis and Buddy Holly — and that contestants would also perform at Le Rêve’s aquatic theater in Las Vegas’ Wynn Hotel. (He also revealed that he has a favorite named Curt — but, given that there are two who’ve made it to Hollywood Week, which one captured Nigel’s heart is anybody’s guess.)
He also said that Hollywood is fraught with drama, much of it related to contestants’ dehydration and lack of sleep — which surprises him, given that contestants have had a decade to study up on what they’re in for. “I’m shocked, having been there, that some of the kids have been watching this for ten years, since they were five years old, that they still don’t realize how difficult Hollywood Week is.”
Asked about the all-but-given departure of Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who has crafted an entertainment empire of his own since signing on to the show, Lythgoe was circumspect. “I don’t have anything bad to say about Ryan, apart from he’s too good-looking and he’s got too much money,” Lythgoe joked. “I just hope he doesn’t leave, to be frank with you. I think they should try and sort out a deal.”
Still, Lythgoe says, the show did just fine after Cowell moved on and it can survive without Seacrest, too — because, ultimately American Idol is about the stars-to-be who grace its stages.
“If what you want is real good talent — without gimmicks, without fireworks on the stage — then watch American Idol,” Lythgoe says. “We’re as strong — or as weak — as the final talent we present to America.”
New episodes of American Idol air Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8/7CT on Fox