When a show heads into its 10th season, you brace for ratings declines. When it heads into its 10th season and loses its biggest star, you brace for the worst. Well, by that measure, Fox’s American Idol has done pretty well. After the public spectacle that the search for new judges became, playing out like a soap opera over the summer, there was a lot of skepticism whether the veteran reality show would collapse following the departure of star judge Simon Cowell. Airing in a new Wednesday-Thursday pattern, Idol did start off down from last season but has since held steady and pretty close to last year’s numbers except for last week which a year ago featured Ellen DeGeneres’ debut as an Idol judge. But it’s still unclear how the 2011 Idol‘s extreme makeover for Season 10 will fare with two new judges (Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler), a new showrunner (returning Nigel Lythgoe), new lower age limit (15), new record company (Universal) and new mentor (Jimmy Iovine, who showed similiarities to grumpy Cowell in his debut on the show tonight). And the changes aren’t done. Word is Idol has inked a deal with Facebook to move its rather antiquated phone voting system to the Web and is also planning to actively use Twitter. In a written Q&A with me, Idol creator/executive producer Simon Fuller declined to discuss any Idol voting changes or his star-turned-competitor Simon Cowell and his upcoming U.S. version of The X Factor. But Fuller shared his thoughts on the new season of Idol:
Deadline: What surprised you the most about American Idol post-Simon Cowell?
Fuller: The best surprise about this new Idol season, is the positivity and energy around the show. All the producers, editors and crew have taken a new pride in the show, each person focused on making everything they do better. Everyone is happy, excited and committed to making this season the best ever and it shows!
Deadline: After the initial year-to-year decline, the ratings for the show have held up pretty well so far. What do you attribute that to?
Fuller: The ratings this season have been incredible, some of our recent shows are actually up on last year. I am not sure anyone would have put a bet on that. This is partially because everybody working on the show has raised their game and we are delivering probably some of the best Idol shows ever. American Idol has found itself. We wanted to lose the negativity and be more motivational. We understand that this shows success is based entirely on the authentic journey of real people with a passion and a dream, no gimmicks, no spin, no smoke and mirrors. It is this personal relationship with the contestants that American Idol viewers love. The addition of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, real stars who also shared that dream, has brought a new level of understanding and empathy to the show, they can identify with each and every one of those contestants and what it really means to have a dream.
Deadline: How big an impact has the return of Nigel Lythgoe had on the show?
Fuller: As soon as Simon Cowell announced his departure from Idol last year, I decided to bring Nigel Lythgoe back to the show. In those early years of Idol, Nigel proved to be a terrific mentor to Simon and our other judges and I knew he would be invaluable this year, with two new judges and so many other changes planned. We have worked together for almost 15 years and have our own production company, so I appreciate more than most what a brilliant producer Nigel is. His passion, understanding and commitment to Idol gave me great confidence with this years show. His energy and optimism is contagious and everyone has benefited from having him back.
Deadline: Both you and Nigel have said that this season will be all about transparency. What exactly do you mean by that?
Fuller: American Idol is the most pure of all competition shows. It is all about the contestants and America’s relationship with them. America chooses who should be the new American Idol, it is as simple as that. We keep away from the hype and the spin we don’t want anything to detract from the core values of this show.
Deadline: What interactive elements are you introducing this season?
Fuller: We want Idol to be as interactive as possible and we will embrace any new ideas that help to further engage our audience as long as it is fair and transparent and not used to corrupt the integrity of the show.
Deadline: People are saying that the contestants look different this year, there is a bigger emphasis on talent. Did you use different criteria in selecting singers for auditions before the judges this time?
Fuller: We made a very conscious effort to find the very best possible talent for this season. Idol is only as good as the contestants we have. We are completely reliant on finding real people who show up for the auditions, we don’t place people in our show or recruit in any other ways, so we simply had to spend more time and more effort and bring in more resource to search out the very best people. In a funny way Simon leaving brought us greater attention and the arrival of two exciting new judges meant that we had our best ever turnout at this year’s auditions. All the effort has paid off and we have some seriously talented singers this year.
Deadline: Are you surprised by the role Steven Tyler has taken on and his emergence as the new star Idol judge?
Fuller: The greatest joy for me of this year’s Idol is knowing that we have found two incredible new judges and seen the rebirth of Randy Jackson. The chemistry between the 3 of them is incredible. It is warm and genuine and I can’t wait to see how the relationship develops over the coming weeks. Steven Tyler is a true legend and it is wonderful for people to discover what a genuinely smart, caring and amusing guy he is. The same can be said for Jennifer, America for the first time can see the real personality, warmth and spirit of a very special lady. I look forward also to people getting to know Jimmy Iovine, our new mentor and probably the world’s most brilliant music executive and producer. He says it as it is and is focused entirely on finding real artists and making incredible recordings with them. We have left no stone unturned.