“For the first time this season,” Ryan Seacrest announces, pausing for extra drama before delivering one of his catchphrases, “Kieran, dim the lights … here we go.”
It’s the taping earlier this month of the Showcase Round on “American Idol,” the phase of the singing competition where 50 hopefuls vie for a spot in the Top 24, and Seacrest is breezing through his lines during rehearsal at the Hollywood nightclub Academy, where this round is being staged.
Two years after the curtain fell on its 15-season run, the groundbreaking Fox series returns to air Sunday on a new network, ABC, and with a new panel of all-star judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan.
But will the revival have the same impact that once made “Idol” a national obsession? The show’s producers are betting on it.
“This was not a show that people were ready to say goodbye to,” says Trish Kinane, “Idol’s” showrunner and executive producer. “None of us really thought it was the end.”
Despite being billed the “Farewell Season,” it became apparent that was temporary when host Seacrest closed the final seconds of the old Fox show with “Goodbye … for now.”
“‘Idol’ was such a big part of my life for so long,” said Seacrest. “I couldn’t imagine my life without [the show].”
Reboot talks were nearly immediate. In its final season, “Idol” averaged 11.5 million viewers with about 13.3 million tuned into the finale, its most-watched in three years.
“We left feeling really good about ourselves,” said “Idol” senior supervising producer Patrick Lynn. “Whether it came back or not.”
Although much has been said about the show’s sagging ratings and inability to launch a pop star the way it had during a heyday where 30 million viewers watched weekly, the fact remains that no other series has managed to accomplish what “Idol” has.
“This is a show that actually makes people’s dreams come true,” said Perry. “‘American Idol’ used to be this big great platform, but now the platform is rather crowded. Still, the ‘Idol’ launch is the perfect combination for takeoff.”
And when viewers tune in on Sunday it will be like “Idol” never left. It’s the same show looking for the best talent the country has to offer, and tugging at your heart along the way.
VOICE OF HOPE
“American Idol” debuted on Fox in the summer after 9/11. The country was mourning and here was an over-the-top aspirational show full of hope and patriotism that plucked singers from anywhere, U.S.A., to be voted on by viewers — giving anyone with a TV and a phone the chance to be judge and jury.
Critics hated it – “Wake me when it’s over,” The Times’ original review read – and more attention was given to the cadre of horrific auditions and what judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson had to say.
But viewers fell in love with a bubbly cocktail waitress from Texas named Kelly Clarkson who was crowned the inaugural champ. Over the course of its run, “Idol” has launched the careers of Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino, Lauren Alaina, Jordin Sparks, Katharine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and others who altogether have sold 65 million albums and logged over 450 No. 1 hits.
Finalists have gone on to Broadway and TV, won Grammys and Academy Awards, performed for the president – and even run for Congress.
“Idol” changed the face of TV, ushering in a wave of similar shows such as “The Voice,” and disrupted the music business. There was a frenzy of merchandise, annual arena tours, compilation albums and an attraction at Disney World – the result of the fan-driven culture and real-time participation the show promoted, impressive considering social media and hashtag viewing wasn’t yet commonplace.
In fact, it was the show’s social engagement during its final seasons that played a key role in its swift return.
After examining viewership and fan interaction on social platforms and video-sharing sites, producers found they hadn’t just lured back younger viewers but music enthusiasts as well.
“There was a substantial audience who still loved ‘Idol,’” said Kinane. “We’re held hostage by our own success. In the early years it was such a phenomenon. But nothing is getting 20 million viewers. A finale with [over] 13 million viewers? That isn't a show people were sick of.”
Fox executives wanted producers to cut the show’s costs and wait longer before a reboot, according to producers. “The economics were terrible at that moment … we didn’t want it back so soon,” Fox Television Group co-chair Dana Walden said last year.
Kinane said the cost of talent is what keeps the price tag high — Perry commanded a $25-million salary, making her the highest-paid judge. “It's not that the show is expensive … talent is expensive,” she admitted. “But there's no point making a cheaper version of ‘American Idol’ as we don’t think it’s excessive.”
Talks between “Idol” production company FremantleMedia North America and ABC about the show’s return started a year ago. “‘Idol’ fits in with ABC’s core vibe and brand. The positivity, the Americana, the storytelling” Kinane said. “And they know how to handle big brands.”
“The biggest thing was making sure we were going all in and not what Fox had been doing, which was sort of just putting it on … and not really making it,” noted Rob Mills, the network’s head of alternative programming. “This had to feel big, like a huge revival.”
Producers refreshed things behind the scenes, bringing on tour director Kristopher Pooley, music manager Phil McIntyre and country radio host Bobby Bones to help the contests vying for the “Idol” crown – which comes with a guaranteed recording contract with Hollywood Records and a cash prize of $250,000 (far below the $1 million winners used to net, but still above what a new artist might get from a label).
ABC didn’t, however, want to stray too far from “Idol’s” visual DNA. This meant the return of Seacrest — the one constant throughout the show’s run — and working around his commitment to “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” which tapes in New York. (Episodes will air Sundays and Mondays then shift to Sunday until the two-night finale to accommodate the host’s schedule.)
“To tell you the truth, we are figuring it out in real-time,” Seacrest said of his bicoastal duties. “Everyone involved has been extremely generous. … But it’s not an uncomplicated puzzle of logistics and scheduling.”
The show’s premiere comes at a challenging time for its host, who was accused of sexual harassment by a stylist who worked with him at his other home, E! Seacrest has denied the accusations and E! said an investigation by an independent attorney cleared him of wrongdoing. Asked about the allegations, an ABC spokesperson said, “It’s business as usual for ‘American Idol’ and Ryan is filming as scheduled.”
Finding a new set of judges, however, was tricky considering the litany of A-list talent that has already sat on the panel.
Perry was the first to sign on, with Richie and Bryan coming after. “For me, it was do I write the book or do I teach,” Richie said. “I wanted to stand in front of artists and give them input, instead of talking to the television about what they are doing wrong.”
In the past Mariah Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Nicki Minaj, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. have all sat at the judges table, seasons in which the contestants were often eclipsed by what was happening with the panel.
Contrary to reports, producers say they didn’t struggle to find a solid panel. “There was a queue of people who would have loved to have been on our judging panel,” said Kinane. “We took a long time to put this panel together. We wanted the right team, the right combination.”
“The panel really is a throwback to the original series with Randy, Simon and Paula,” Mills noted. “That chemistry that’s like a lightning in a bottle.”
On a recent afternoon the laughter from Perry, Bryan and Richie echoed throughout the set as they recounted their brief time together (pranks are popular among this crew).
“I'm the history channel,” Richie volunteers when asked what he brings to the table.
“Yes, he’s the father of the group,” Perry corrects. “We are Lionel's children that prank and get into a lot of trouble.”
Watching the trio in action, it’s apparent there are no pre-assigned “roles.” No one is the “mean one.” There’s no “good cop, bad cop” dynamism. Instead, each brings a pragmatic, impassioned outlook to the table and leans on one another equally in their roles.
“Taking this on, I don’t think I was ready for the emotional toll,” said Bryan. “It's not anything we take lightly. We see these contestants really, really hurting. We have our favorites and I’ve lost sleep wondering if I made the right decision.”
The judges and producers sought to find its most diverse crop of talent possible. Auditions were held in 23 cities across the country, with talent also discovered online.
“We went to smaller places — you don’t always have to go to New York and L.A.,” said Lynn. “We ended up going to places like Muscle Shoals and little tiny places in the South.”
The move to the Disney-owned ABC also means the show has dialed up its feel-good, homespun factor.
Expect lots of Disney magic — naturally, auditions kicked off at Walt Disney World — and inspirational storytelling. At the beginning of the season, viewers meet a teenage girl famous for a bad performance of the national anthem, an immigrant looking for his big break and, unsurprisingly, a Disney superfan.
But can “Idol” find a viable star again? Its last few winners have struggled to make a footing in the industry, something critics have long posited as proof the show had lost its luster. Show personnel isn't concerned.
“‘Idol’ has a steep history in discovering some of music’s biggest stars, and I imagine that will continue,” Seacrest said. “It’s proven to be a terrific format to discover new artists that have moved on to become huge artists.”
Perry is less diplomatic in her position: “There’s another network that doesn’t find any stars ... well they find them, they just don’t do anything with them,” she said, a clear slap at “Idol’s” rival, NBC’s “The Voice.” “We don't want to be too mean, but we can state the obvious: Who from that show has really done anything?”
At Exchange LA, a downtown nightclub, the Showcase Round first got underway. Those who advance will then duet at the Academy alongside seasoned performers such as Luis Fonsi, Sugarland and Aloe Blacc, but today is the first time they sing in front of a crowd and the audience is packed with teens who grew up watching “Idol” with their family the way many of this show’s current crop of hopefuls had.
And there lies “Idol’s” greatest charm. It’s a talent competition with an intergenerational appeal that’s just as accessible to a kid working toward pop stardom in New York or L.A. as one from little-known towns in the heartland.
One contestant said it best: “What’s more American than coming to America to follow your American dream and ending up on ‘American Idol.’”
“There’s a mood in the country right now. We need this show now like we did when it initially came out months after 9/11, said Mills. “‘Idol’ is bright, aspirational. There absolutely will be drama, and it will be a ride — but at the end of the day, it’s going to have a happy ending.”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)