Reviving singing competition staple American Idol after only two years off the air, showrunner and executive producer Trish Kinane worked to refresh the series for another run, while coming up against challenges she knew all too well from previous experience in the unscripted space—problems of technology.
As FremantleMedia North America’s President of Entertainment explains, Idol has always been a pioneering vehicle in the unscripted space—even back in 2002, when the show came on the air. One of the first competition series to engage voters through cellular voting, Idol has once again reinvented itself, with the introduction of a simulcast. Allowing simultaneous live voting across the United States—the first competition series to do so in the history of American television—Idol has resolved a problem long faced in the realm of competition series when it came to delivering the final tallies.
Bringing the series to ABC after 15 years on Fox, Kinane found a collaborative entity that would take the series to the next level, with new judges and a new visual presentation. With series like Idol, format is constant. For the EP, though, challenge is a constant reality, as she seeks to keep a familiar series fresh.
You came to American Idol late in its first run. How did that come about?
I was working for Fremantle as President of Worldwide Entertainment in London, which basically meant flying producers off all around the world to look after the big formats—X Factor, Idol, Got Talent and game shows. Then Cécile Frot-Coutaz, who was running Fremantle in North America, got promoted to run Fremantle Worldwide. So she went to London, and she asked me to come out here and look after those three shows. I came for three weeks; it’s now six years later.
Were there lessons you took from working on series like X Factor that you were able to bring to Idol?
I think there are a lot of similarities, in terms of the production that needs to go into all of these talent shows. But they all have their own distinct format. So I think you just approach each one as an individual format and produce them appropriately. The thing about American Idol which was interesting for me was, it was the original. It was the first, the one that engaged the viewers.
Technology in 2002, which is when it started over here, had just about got to a point where texting could work, and phone voting could work. I knew from shows that I produced back in the UK in previous years that none of that technology was quite there. If too many people rang in, the ambulances couldn’t go out because it would crash the local network. It had just about got there in 2002 where you could have this mass voting and mass texting. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen that clip of Ryan Seacrest in one of the early series, where he’s got this huge phone and he’s just pressing the button, showing viewers literally how to send a text.
I think that’s what gave Idol the lift from being a singing talent show to truly engaging with viewers. That was exciting about it and still is actually. [We’ve also introduced] real-time voting, and I think these technological innovations transformed it from a good talent show into something extraordinary.
There was only a brief window between the end of the original Idol series on Fox and the revival on ABC. Why was this the right time and place to bring the series back?
When the show went off the air on Fox, it was still getting really good ratings—not the ratings that Idol had in its heyday. In that sense, Idol is slightly a victim of its own success. Nothing gets 30 million viewers anymore unless it’s the Super Bowl or something. But it’s still getting really good ratings. We did a lot of research when the show came off the air: Should we let it rest? Should we bring it back? Should we leave it for a few years? For 10 years?
We looked at it pretty carefully, and what viewers were telling us was, they still liked it. They weren’t ready to see it go. They liked discovering new talent, and if we were going to bring it back, we shouldn’t leave it too long. Because if you leave it too many years, other things come and take it over. It was two years between when it went off the air on Fox and coming back on the air on ABC, which seemed decent. I think that thing about talented contestants looking for ways to have a career, it’s always popular with viewers. The other thing that the research told us was that the profile of ABC’s viewers was a really close match with Idol viewers. So it seemed a really natural fit.
What are your thoughts on what we’re seeing in the industry in a broad context, with its abundance of revivals and reboots?
You’d have to ask the broadcasters about their philosophy about why they’d go for a reboot rather than something else. Certainly, with American Idol, it’s a huge brand. So I guess some risk is mitigated by that. The other thing about Idol is, even though it’s a reboot, it’s very different every time. Kids are turning 15 every day; the music is different. We’ve refreshed it considerably since two years ago. So even though it’s a reboot, the elements of it all are constantly being renewed. The characters, if you like—the contestants—they’re all different. The judges are different. So in a sense, it feels free and new.
Can you expand to what the transition to ABC has meant for the series?
Well look, we had a really happy 15 years with Fox. We built the show together, but like I said, the viewer profile with ABC was actually a closer match than it would have been with Fox. We talked a lot about the storytelling, the contestants, the support for these young kids, and that very much seemed as well to fit with ABC’s values. They understood the value of great talent and great storytelling. Also, they know how to handle big brands—I mean, it’s Disney. They know what these big brands mean and how to present them.
The marketing and promotion that we’ve gotten from ABC have been amazing. That has made it a very happy transition, without denying the really great relationship we had with Fox before that. When we went to ABC we looked with them at refreshing the brand creatively, and we thought, Okay, we have an opportunity now. What do we do? Do we completely change American Idol and bring it back in a very different way? In the end, we decided that everything about it was going to be different, but also everything about it was going to be the same if that’s not a contradiction. The format works: It was simple. Viewers know it, they understand it, they know the phases, auditions, Hollywood week, live shows. It works. So there was no point trying to put some gimmick into that just to make it feel different for non-organic reasons.
We decided whilst we would keep the same format, we would look at every element of it and refresh it. We made it really easy for contestants to get to us in terms of our audition process. We’re much more interested in kids with raw talent from nowhere. These kids haven’t got any money; they can’t travel to places very far away for these auditions. So we sent two buses off to 24 locations all around America. We had showcases; we had open auditions; we had produced auditions; we had online, Musical.ly. We did everything to make it easy to get to us. Then, we changed the judges, which I think has been an important part of a fresh look.
The viewers tell us they want judges with credibility, a right to be there. Katy [Perry] is the ultimate pop star; Lionel [Richie]’s heritage, you just can’t deny when he talks about Michael Jackson. He really worked with Michael Jackson and wrote songs with him. He’s doing a show in Vegas; he’s still relevant today. Then Luke [Bryan], in the country world—which a lot of our viewers enjoy—is a massive, arena-selling superstar. More important than all of those things is the chemistry between them. You might have noticed it took us a bit of time to put the judges in place for Idol. We didn’t rush into it. There were lots of people who wanted to be a judge on the panel, but they just weren’t right. Or the combination of them wouldn’t have been right. So we just hung on until we could find the right combination.
What went into the decision to introduce a simulcast this season, allowing simultaneous live voting across the country?
I think all these shows always get a bit reinvented if you can use technology in the right way. One of the things that have always been a problem for producers on these shows is, how on earth do you get a result at the end of the show? Who’s going home? That’s really all you want to know. In the past with Idol and The Voice and other shows, they’ve had to have a results show the next day, or a few days later, or whenever it is, so that the voting can happen East Coast and West Coast. Then, the results show is normally sort of filler. All you want to know is who’s going home or who’s through, but you have to fill an hour worth of TV before you get to that.
It’s been a problem. Shows like Rising Star tried to address it with a bit of a West Coast tag-on, and The Voice tried their ways of addressing it, but what we came up with with ABC was made possible because we’re on on a Sunday. The affiliates were really supportive and cooperative to let us transmit live simultaneously, East Coast and West Coast, and therefore get a true result at the end of the show. That’s never been done on a competition show in the history of American television. It’s a first. So that was exciting. And that was truly in collaboration with ABC.
You’ve noted in the past that ABC’s Idol is softer and kinder, in some ways. Has there been a specific mandate that the judges be less harsh with their critiques?
It wasn’t really about going less harsh on them or going kinder. I was just acknowledging that viewers are more sophisticated now than they were 15 years ago. They understand the production process, that not every contestant goes in front of the judges. We want a variety of contestants in the show in terms of their musical styles, their personalities, their ages, all of that stuff. In the end, it’s just about, what is real talent?
Anybody who wants to audition for Idol can, but there’s no point in pretending that the producers haven’t seen these people before they get to the judges. In terms of our judges, there was a lot of constructive criticism, particularly from Katy and Lionel. But they were year-one judges; they tend to be a little kinder than they might be next time around. I’m not quite sure what they’re going to do next time around—we’ll see. But I think they understand that their job is to be helpful to the contestants by giving them honest critiques. You can’t say everybody’s great. Having said that, there were a lot of good contestants. So certainly when we got to the top 10, it was quite hard to be too critical of them when actually they’d just given a really good performance.
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