Some people truly love a challenge. When FremantleMedia named Trish Kinane the President of Entertainment Programming, North America in July 2012, the Brit reality veteran not only took over executive producer duties on Fox’s American Idol but also The X Factor and NBC’s America’s Got Talent. In short, mega-properties each. Since then Idol has gone through a number of changes, Simon Cowell’s X Factor has closed up shop in the U.S., and AGT has come back this season solid. Formerly Fremantle’s president of worldwide entertainment and based in the UK, Kinane comes from both the indie and network world with tenure at Action Time and Channel 4. The EP of two of the heavyweights of reality TV believes Idol took a hit from the Winter Olympics on NBC, that honestly is the best policy for judges, and that tech made Idol possible. She also has something new cooking, maybe the next big thing.
DEADLINE: Last year at a speech at NAB, you spoke of Idol as being the gold-standard show in terms of format and how the series was one of the first to adapt interactivity with viewers since it debuted in the summer of 2002. A lot has changed since Idol premiered.
TRISH KINANE: I think Idol is the, sort of, classic gold-standard format, in terms of these music shows, and I still do. It’s the simple story, it’s the simple transition of a kid from nowhere who comes through the process, and ends up, hopefully, not always, but often, in the case of Idol, having a career. Having said that, you know, you’ve got to do things, you’ve got to keep it fresh, you’ve got to try to keep it relevant. Last year, there were problems with the panel, which I think were fairly public, so we put a new panel in place. The panel for the last season has been incredibly successful. We wanted people who knew what they were talking about, people who had a right to be there, people who could offer genuine advice to these kids, people who really cared about these kids, and I think in Harry, Keith, and Jennifer, we’ve absolutely got that.
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DEADLINE: Coming off the panel problems of Season 12, what was the takeaway for you and the other producers going into Season 13?
KINANE: The viewers are telling us they wanted people who weren’t afraid to speak their mind and would be honest. All of them in their own way do that, but Harry Connick Jr., in particular, it’s part of his philosophy that it’s his duty to do that, to tell these kids and be honest with them. Otherwise, it was quite subtle things, but they still were important things. You’ve got to have entertainment for the viewers. And the panel’s got to feel like they get on, like they have chemistry, like they have a bit of fun, as well as all the serious bits of the job, and I think we’ve got the panel right this year. I think there has been progress. It has been something that’s sensitive and tricky to do, but I absolutely am really happy with that.
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DEADLINE: For a long-running show like Idol, how do you freshen it up without losing the core of what made it so successful for so long?
KINANE: In terms of the other format refreshments, you know, we’ve done a lot of little things, small things that all add up to a fresher feel for a long-running show. Until after the Olympics all of that was working very well. If you’re going to ask about the ratings, it was after the Olympics came, that’s where the ratings took a dip. Look, I think those are the challenges and just the sheer scope of the history of American Idol. Personally, I think, American Idol is like an American icon. The actual show, looking for people who can sing, trying to tell their stories, trying to build the narrative up, all of those things, I think, are the same. It doesn’t really matter where you’re from, that sort of Cinderella story resonates. It’s been there for a long time, and it created the genre of programming.
DEADLINE: So you think the history can be an anchor?
KINANE: If you look at Got Talent, that’s thriving, it’s still doing well. I think it was the No. 1 show of the summer last year, and I think, this year, it will be even better. I think it has its own place because it’s variety, it has danger acts, it has kids, it has choirs. So I think the fact that it has all these different things gives it its own place in the market. Whereas the music shows — Idol, X Factor — there’s a lot of competition amongst that specific sort of brand of reality programming in the market. So that’s slightly different.
DEADLINE: Well, for one both had the X-Factor of Simon Cowell, something American audiences won’t see this coming year for the first time in over a decade. Do you think that kind of harsh approach judging has gone out of favor with audiences?
KINANE: The thing about both Simon, and what Harry Connick is doing now, is it was real. Simon will say what he thinks, and he’s not putting it on just to be a panelist on the X Factor or Idol or wherever else he’s on. He says what he thinks and he says what he thinks from his experience, and he often says what the audience is thinking as well. Harry, in his own way, is the same because he’s really passionate about helping these kids. He thinks they’re talented, and he thinks he should help them, but part of helping them is to be critical when they need him to be critical. It was always, no, you can do better. Maybe on some other shows it’s gone softer, but I think as long as it’s authentic and genuine, then I think there’s a place for that honesty, and I think viewers appreciate it.
DEADLINE: Do you think the appeal of specific genres have a pattern?
KINANE: You know, it’s interesting to see where this genre has gone into the more sort of character-led, personality-led forms of reality TV. At the same time, things are cyclical. I think every generation, each genre of programming has a star, and it might be every 20 years or maybe even every 30 years. Look at game shows. They were sort of out of fashion, out of favor. They weren’t fresh, there was nothing new, so they were pushed into the daytime schedule. Then along came something fresh and it was Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The same with Idol. Talent shows had had their day. They would always come back, because people are always interested in seeing talent, but Idol was the one that brought it back. And I think interestingly with Idol, and to some extent, a little bit with Millionaire, but technology has made a huge difference.
DEADLINE: How so?
KINANE: Because when Idol started, there wasn’t any Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Twitter or any of that stuff. But telephone voting became possible, and text voting became possible, and that’s what changed the face of the talent show. The ability for people to have a say, for people to have some control, that, I think, is what made it different. It was the right time, and that technological advancement that made Idol happen.
DEADLINE: So where does it go from here?
KINANE: We’re actively working on something. I’m working with the two executive producers on the X Factor, and it’s an interesting area, that’s all I can say, but I think that’s the next place to look. We’ve all got to be looking for the next thing, and I think technology and what technology enables us to do will have some bearing on what the next big thing is.