Can ‘American Idol’ still find a viable recording artist? The show’s producers think so

Trent Harmon, center right, was crowned the victor on the series finale of "American Idol'" in 2016. The long-running singing competition has been rebooted by ABC -- but can it find a viable recording artist?
(Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press)

When “American Idol” kicked off its reboot on ABC this week, viewers saw that much hadn’t changed with the groundbreaking singing competition — and that’s by design.

“‘Idol’s’ a really simple format. It’s talented kids singing in front of judges. Viewers vote for them and make them a star,” said showrunner and executive producer Trish Kinane. “We looked at gimmicks [or] adding game play. But ‘American Idol’ is what it is. That’s not to say that we haven’t refreshed it.”

Aside from enlisting a new panel of judges — pop legend Lionel Richie, pop superstar Katy Perry and country heartthrob Luke Bryan — producers made a number of changes behind the scenes ahead of the show’s return on Sunday and Monday. (The show scored solid if not spectacular ratings in its premiere, but then lost to “The Voice” on Monday).

The goal? To better prepare contestants for the rigors of the music industry.


Kristopher Pooley, who has worked on tours including those of Perry, Dixie Chicks, Miguel and Gwen Stefani, will assist hopefuls in shaping the arrangements for their performances, replacing longtime musical director Rickey Minor.

Producers tapped influential country radio host Bobby Bones to mentor the contestants both on and off screen and veteran music manager Phil McIntyre (Demi Lovato, DNCE) signed on as an executive producer to help develop talent.

“The show’s a force of music,” Pooley said. “‘Idol’ has kind of always been in my musical consciousness. I jumped at the chance to teach — and put real music moments on TV.”

For Perry, joining “Idol” was an opportunity to champion new voices.

“I’ve always been interested in new artists. I have my own little label where I’m kind of mentoring … and I’ve always brought new artists on the road with me, which has been a thread with all my tours whether it’s Marina and the Diamonds or Ellie Goulding or Noah Cyrus,” she said.

“Doing [“Idol”] is a way to offer constructive criticism and to give back,” Perry continued. “It’s great to put these kids through, what we call, ‘the star wash.’ To see how they come out on the other end.”

An integral part of that “star wash” is mentorship and a more “holistic” approach to artist development, producers say.

McIntyre’s role is off camera, because he’s tasked with helping contestants “find themselves as artists.”

“If I’m effective in my role, a fan of the show will give that credit to the artist and think, ‘Wow, they have found their confidence’ or ‘They have greatly improved since last week or the beginning of the show,’” McIntyre said. “What we’re doing is going down the artist development journey in a very expedited way.”

Viewers will see Bones work directly with the aspiring performers, but not on their voices.

“They have enough singers on that show to teach them how to sing,” he said and laughed. “[Producers] wanted to bring in someone to focus on other parts of their performance and they brought me in because of the different parts of my career that I can use to help them.”

Considering the success of early victors Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia and Jordin Sparks, “Idol” has struggled to escape criticism that its days as a starmaker were long gone — particularly as rival shows crowded the landscape.

And while “Idol” might not have birthed a megastar like Clarkson or Underwood in its later years, the show has continued to produce viable recording artists such as Scotty McCreery, Haley Reinhart, Phillip Phillips, Lee DeWyze and Trent Harmon.

“The track record of the artists they have found and provided launching pads for is something to believe in,” McIntyre said.

“The reason ‘Idol’ was able to make stars is it’s a very contestant-focused show,” Bones noted. “From the first six or seven seasons I can name people who were in seventh and eighth place because the focus really was on the contestants. With this reset on a new network, there are some cool things to watch that I didn’t see on its later seasons.”

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