Nigel Lythgoe on the New Season of "American Idol"

By Christiane Elin

Nigel LythgoeAmerican Idol is back for season 16 with a new group of judges: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Nicki Minaj. As well as new judges there are other changes in the new season in the audition process. There's an American Idol bus that goes out to the little towns with a producer onboard to bring talent into the bigger cities for auditions. Another new addition to the show is a segment called, "I Nominate," which has friends and family nominating a person who they think has a great voice but was too nervous to audition for American Idol. In the "I Nominate" segments, Randy Jackson does some hidden camera work and shocks and surprises the contestants with an American Idol audition number. During Hollywood week for the first time, they split the weeks up and give a week to the men and then a week to the women. Idol will continue to have them split in the Vegas rounds.

See what else American Idol's Executive Producer, Nigel Lythgoe has to say about the newest season.

FOX Conference Call
American Idol

Nigel Lythgoe

January 9, 2013

Nigel LythgoeQUESTION: Besides the judges are there any other new changes or anything new we can expect from this season?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: We’ve done quite a little interesting thing with the auditions and the fact that American Idol has always gone out to the cities en mass so we take over huge football stadiums and then bring it right down. We’ve actually taken an American Idol bus out to the little towns this year with a producer on board who have brought kids back in to the audition; kids that wouldn’t necessarily be either close enough to one of the cities we were at or even have the financial means to get to one of the big cities. That introduced new talent to us, I must say.

Plus we did a thing called ‘I Nominate’ which was friends and family who thought that the person that they were nominating had a great voice but were a little too nervous to come along to audition. Randy Jackson actually went out and we did some hidden camera stuff and shocked them and surprised them, and then gave them an audition number so that they actually skipped the lines and everything, came straight in to see the judges if Randy agreed them. That was quite interesting and gives a little something different to the audition process.

Also, I guess in Hollywood Week we changed that up. First time ever in Hollywood Week we split the weeks up and gave a week to the boys and then a week to the girls, which really gave us an awful lot more focus on our talent this year that allowed us to see the woods through the trees, if you will. We’re going to continue to do that during the Vegas rounds as well up until the point we get to our top ten.

QUESTION: Okay. Wow that’s a good number of changes. That’s going to change things up quite a bit.

NIGEL LYTHGOE: It just gives us a little more insight i to who the talent is. You’re not mixing it up all the time.

QUESTION: Are there any musical guests or special coaches or judges you could talk about for this season or that you’re allowed to talk about?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: No. We’re not having any judges; obviously we’ve got enough with the four that we’ve got, thank you very much. No, nothing about mentors this season at all. Jimmy Lovine is coming back and I do want to go back—we did it not last year but the year before where we actually used record producers to help the kids. I want to do that again this year and try and give their journey the same journey that they would have had had they had not had this competition but moved in to the music business. The more I can align it to the music business the stronger it is going to be for them and their journey. As we’ve seen with Phil Phillips coming out the other side he’s one of the few artists that sold that many records last year; probably only him and Adele that did that well.

QUESTION: Tell me all about your impressions of Oklahoma and our Boathouse District and everything.

NIGEL LYTHGOE: eah. Well, the boathouse is wonderful isn’t it?

QUESTION: Um-hmm. it’s beautiful.

NIGEL LYTHGOE: It’s terrific. Yeah. No, some very, very good talent, very good talent, which we were pleased with. It was quite funny, Oklahoma City was nothing how I imagined it. It’s much smaller and was closed when I got there. I think we arrived at about 10:00 on a Sunday and we couldn’t find anywhere to eat, and ended up at a Sonic burger I think. But the talent itself was tremendous and very pleased; pleased with that show as well. You never know what you’re going to get. There’s no equation. We can see 20,000 kids and only come back with four or five or go and see 2,000 and come back with 100. It is amazing that we can never predict what we’re going to get.

QUESTION: You mentioned the success of Phillip Phillips and with so many similar shows on the air why do you think it is that American Idol is the only one producing bonafide stars?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, in fairness I suppose it’s right to say that they really haven’t been on the air that long yet to qualify against American Idol . I do think that other shows tend to concentrate a little more on maybe gimmicks, maybe their judges a little too much. I say that having just experienced two moments of talking about our new judges, but hopefully the programs themselves when we see them will show you that we’re still focusing on the contestants.

Also, the amount of votes that people vote and get involved with they want to see them successful after the show as well once you’ve invested in somebody. Plus you have to say that Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” was just tremendous so he was very lucky in having a great song to come out with. Scotty McCreery again very good in that genre and people loved him. We’ve had success and we want to continue having success.

QUESTION: The upcoming season is going to feature a different semifinals round than last season in that the Vegas round will be a part of it and there will essentially be four more performance shows in which the judges will eliminate five hopefuls after each show. After America votes to narrow the 20 semifinalists down to the top ten finalists there will apparently be no wild card picks from the judges this time around. Would you mind talking about those changes a little bit and why there were implemented?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Personally I have never liked a top 11 or a top 12 or a top 13. It was always created in order to fill the transmission times that Fox wanted so we created top 13s and top 12s and gave them a wild card here and let’s bring somebody back. It’s very plain and simple in truth, and as we’ve always done with So You Think You Can Dance there’s your top ten. It’s a knockout competition that simple, and we’ve always attempted to do that in truth, but we’ve never found a way to do it with everything that’s been asked of us and this year we have.

QUESTION: You guys mentioned during the Television Critics Association event yesterday about it’s the girls’ season to lose once again, which is something that’s been said the past couple of years. What do you think the female contestants need to do to get the votes to make it through all the way to the end during the live shows this season?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: What they’ve always had to do, which is capture the vote. It isn’t always about the voice; it is about charisma, it is about personality, it is about attracting an audience and doing that week on week. If there was an absolute formula to stick to in order to win American Idol we’d have probably found it by now, bottled it, and I’m sure one of the production companies would be selling it, but we haven’t. It’s really what grabs you. Does the story grab you? Does the song of the week grab you? It’s a difficult one.

All we’re saying this year is there is more strength in the talent, I think, of the girls. That is not to say that one of the boys will not sneak in because there are, I would say just off the top of my head, five or six really good guys and only five of them are going to make the top ten. At the end of the day when you’ve got five guys and five girls the strength of talent, the depth of talent doesn’t matter. You’re still only dealing with five males and five females. It’s anybody’s game at that stage.

QUESTION: Would you be personally disappointed if a guy won this year?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: I get my favorites. I’m human and I like my favorite. I’ve never been disappointed with any one of the winners with the shows that I’ve been involved in. I’ve been disappointed in losing people a little too early along the way. Even in the first season Tamyra Gray I was really upset at losing along the way, but thrilled that Kelly Clarkson won. I don’t have a personal involvement from that point of view. I have a favorite; normally my favorite revolves around who I pick in the draw and hopefully I’ll win the $150 at the end of the series. But in truth I don’t have a horse in the race and I like to keep it that way so that nobody can make allegations about “Oh, his favorite one, how did that happen?”

SCIFI VISION: I’ve heard a lot in the press about the judges, and then I haven’t heard a lot about Keith Urban. Can you tell us a little bit about his contribution this season?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, Keith Urban—it actually came up at TCA yesterday where somebody said, “All of a sudden country music is being embraced by American Idol ,” which in truth I tried to put right and say, “Well, we did country music right from the beginning.” Simon Cowell doesn’t like country music. I don’t think he understands country music. I don’t think he understands all the different genres of country music whether it’s bluegrass album or country or anything. He just thinks that everything is ‘grandma got run over by a reindeer’ or whatever it was, and that’s his assumption of country music and he always put it down.

But we always had it there and we always had good country singers. We’ve always had it within American Idol. This is the first time I think that we’ve had a country judge and he is such a lovely man. He is the scratching post between Mariah and Nicki. He sometimes looks like he’s watching a tennis match with his head bobbing between the two girls, but when it’s his turn to speak he gives his mind and he won’t put up with anybody else knocking him down. He’s had rounds with Mariah, Randy, and Nicki; a big one with Nicki, in truth.

They’re very passionate. He’s still passionate. Each one of the judges I think is looking for something else this year. They know they’ve got a big job on their hands because Jennifer, Steven, and Randy did very well with Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips. They’ve also have got to live up to that and they’re very competitive people. These are human beings that have experienced an incredible success in their own lives. They don’t want to be put down in any way shape or form so they are going for the best that they can get.

I think Nicki is looking for an artist. I think Mariah is looking for the complete singer/songwriter. Randy is looking for somebody that sings on pitch, and Keith isn’t just looking for a country star. Keith is looking for an instrumentalist, a good singer, and somebody that can capture that magic charisma, if you will, and connect with the public. They all have their own agendas. Keith is a great addition this year.

QUESTION: Speaking of Simon Cowell, who do you think is going to lay down the heavy hand this season on the judging panel?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, so far Randy Jackson. Randy, when other people couch their “No, you were crap” Randy says it, and “Give up singing. You’re never going to be a singer; give it up.” You can see the other three judges wouldn’t because although they may agree with that outright sentiment they certainly feel like they’re not there to hurt anybody. Where possible they will try and send them away with either a good comment of how they can improve or a suggestion of what they move on into. Randy, in truth, is the tough one. Obviously they haven’t met my little friend Jimmy Lovine yet, and he will have many words to say.

One thing—it must be remembered that these judges are judges. They’re not mentors so they’re not really going to be speaking with the kids during the week or helping them improve. They will make a judgment of the kid’s performance, and then if it helps then the kids take it onboard. If not, it’s very difficult in those 30 seconds, 45 seconds to make lasting comments for the kids to improve week on week. We’ve got other people telling them how to do that.

QUESTION: How important or how empowering was it for you to have the success that Phil Phillips had just when you’re ready to launch really what is a new version of the show and a reconfigured version of the show? It reminded everybody that yes, Idol can produce big stars and he’s been one of the biggest in a few years. Is that personally satisfying for you?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, certainly that song has been one of the biggest and Phillip’s still got to prove himself. We can’t just jump up and down and go, “Wow. He’s a major star now.” There a long way to go to be the next Carrie Underwood who’s sustained so well, Kelly Clarkson who’s sustained so well … but thrilled for Phillip. It obviously validates the program, but there are other people like Colton in that year that has become a huge Christian star. Scotty McCreery is still a very big country star. We tend, thank goodness, to produce the goods at the end of the series but it’s maintaining them too.

I’m not one of these people that just want to wave a flag and go, “American Idol is the greatest thing.” We’re a springboard. We’re a springboard but one record does not make a career, and I have every belief that Phillip will make a career because I think he’s hugely talented. But we are extremely lucky that a record like “Home” sells over three million records, but it was picked up by the Olympic Games. It was picked up by a movie. It’s astounding how successful that’s been, and now hopefully we’ll use that as a springboard to get the attention for this year’s American Idol.

QUESTION: On this past season of The X Factor, on the results show night they not only revealed which contestants would continue on but they also actually revealed the ranking of how America voted. I was wondering if you might be considering that for this season of Idol.

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, it’s very amusing to me because it’s something that we’ve wanted to do for eight, nine years. We did it in England with Pop Idol and I’ve always been stopped doing it in this country with people saying, “Oh no, people will stop voting if you show that the one person is winning.” You know, like a Carrie Underwood who won every week people will stop voting. We always fought that back and said, “Well, no, just because my soccer team is number four in the league doesn’t mean to say I’m going to stop supporting them. I’m going to support them more and try and let them beat the people in front.”

All of a sudden they managed to do it on The X Factor so I was a little, “Damn, it now looks like we’re going to be copying them.” The one thing I believe about American Idol is everybody else copies American Idol, but yes, I thought it was a good move. I thought it was a good move from when we first came here. I think it doesn’t stop people voting. I think it makes them more passionate to see their person do well, so I liked it. We’ll still discuss it. I’m not sure how we’ll do it.

I also like the idea of doing, I suppose, conferences like the NBA does and say, “Let’s see how the West voted for you. Let’s see how the East voted for you. Let’s see how the North voted for you.” And build the … up so you can see where the votes are coming in from. I think that would be fabulous. I think it would be exciting. I think we’d see if they’ve got home town support. It’s very interesting when you’ve got a Hawaiian contestant how that can sway the vote when every island votes, for goodness sake. Anything like that that … interest and fills a show out that is generally 99% padding anyway we can make that exciting I really want to look at. Now that The X Factor has managed to do that I will be fighting tooth and nail.

QUESTION: You’ve talked a little bit about the judges already and there are some new ones this season. Generally what makes a good judge do you think and how much of a bonus has it been that we’ve already heard so much about these judges and the sparks that are flying between them?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: Well, I don’t think that’s been a bonus in any way shape or form, to be frank. It’s not publicity that I welcomed. I really do—and I’ve said all the way since we began this show, it’s about the contestants. The judges are always going to be interesting because they are who they are, but the show is about the contestants. I don’t really want to know that there’s been a huge blow up between them or anything like that and have it all taken out of proportion of what actually goes on during the long days that we do, and the amount of kids that came along and the wonderfully talented ones that came along. I’m not into that sort of publicity.

What I do think we’ve got though, it is going to I guess get people to watch to see if they grow up on television. Everybody tells me I should be grateful for that. I would much prefer that they watch because these judges are excellent. Nicki Minaj I think is one of the best judges I’ve ever worked with.

What makes a good judge I believe is somebody who is honest; honest with integrity, and not honest just telling somebody they suck and go home and pack your suitcase. Honest in the fact that you are good but you can improve by doing this. Any information that they can feed in to helping the kids in that short period of time they’ve got to judge I think is great. The different angles that they can come from knowing that it isn’t just about the voice and really does it matter if they sing out of tune a little bit because everybody I’ve ever seen live sings out of tune, even the greatest singers in the world. And of course if you’re making a single nowadays they’ll autotune it anyway.

Is there more that we should be discussing rather than you were pitchy? I’m so sick of that remark. Now we’re constantly trying to find ways to help them and I think this panel is doing that.

QUESTION: With Nicki Minaj on the judges’ panel this season do you think we are on our way of having a greater embrace of hip hop music on Idol? Could we potentially have a winner who might be a rapper singer like Nicki is?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: I don’t believe so. I don’t think rap really fits in to American Idol in the sense that I believe rap is an art form in itself more akin to poetry, more akin to drama, if you will. I think rap in the street when they have rap competitions is thrilling because these kids are making it up and having a go at each other. They’ve got something to say. This is about getting their frustrations out. Hip hop is a way of life. It isn’t a genre in truth in American Idol.

I think what we’ll get is a lot of good R&B kids. A lot of good street kids coming in that goodness knows we need it because there’s very little music to get hold of now days. I think we’ve heard the Adele songbook 2,987 times this season because there are melodies there that the kids can latch on to and sing. It’s really difficult nowadays to get songs that have got a verse, a chorus, a middle eight, and a melody. Once you get them then those are the songs kids sing, and we all go, “Ugh” and then you give them a whole list of 9,200 songs and they sing Etta James’ “At Last.”

We can’t win sometimes with the music but no, I do not believe hip hop will become a genre on American Idol.

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