EXCLUSIVE: American Idol is heading back to the studio and is bringing a live audience with it – becoming one of the biggest non-scripted series to find a way to get crowds in safely.
The talent contest is nine episodes into its fourth season on ABC and has successfully navigated the pandemic to avoid looking like a Zoom format.
Producer Fremantle is now back in Television City with around 50 people let in to watch and react to its upcoming All Star Duets round. Showrunner Trish Kinane told Deadline that the show has worked closely with the L.A. County Department of Public Health to find safe way for fans to join. Audience members will be masked, tested and seated in pods with their immediate households.
She said that there’s a “real buzz to being back with real people with real singing and a real audience” and that it was always the intention to have a live crowd, Covid-19 numbers permitting, for this season. “We’ve got as many as we possibly can, and we’re hoping if things get better, we’ll be able to get even more audience in for the finale on May 23,” she added. “It makes a difference even having the 50 people we’re allowed to have, people reacting properly. When someone hits the high note, you can’t re-create that reaction.”
The studio also has been redesigned. Producers have had to make the stage much wider to accommodate social distancing – singers have to be 20 feet apart – and there needs to be more room to keep judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie safely apart. “It made us look creatively how the studio was going to look and feel,” she said.
The show — whose premiere added 3.5M to its Live+Same Day ratings average over 35 days taking it to a total of 10.5M total viewers — is back in the studio for the All Star Celebrity Duet Pairings episodes, which air on April 4 and 5. Stars involved include Ryan Tedder, Joss Stone, Jewel, Josh Groban and Brandon Boyd.
These episodes will also feature viewer voting – the earliest that overnight voting has been introduced to the show. Viewers will be voting four contestants off from each duet group with the top 16 results revealed the following week during the April 11 episode, which will be the show’s first live episode. “It seemed like this was the moment to get America involved, they’ll be voting from now on,” Kinane said.
All of this was designed to make the show, which is hosted by Ryan Seacrest, feel as normal as possible, despite a large portion of production having taken part during some of the toughest months of the pandemic.
Last season, American Idol, which is produced by Fremantle in association with Industrial Media’s 19 Entertainment, was one of the most high-profile shows to be shut down in the middle of production and got back up and running virtually. This time around, Kinane and exec producer Megan Wolflick were keen for it to look as “non-Covid as possible.”
“You get the odd mask in the back of shot, but it feels pretty normal, and that’s our aim going forward as well, just to try and get something on people’s screens that feels familiar, normal, uplifting, positive, all of that stuff,” said Kinane, who is also President of Entertainment Programming for producer FremantleMedia North America.
To begin the process, the production team launched its first-ever live virtual auditions via the Idol Across America program using Zoom. These auditions took place between August and October. Wolflick told Deadline that there were some positives to doing it virtually rather than by the traditional bus tour. “We were able to find people that maybe would have never had access to audition before because they couldn’t afford to go to a bus stop, or they didn’t want to spend money on a hotel overnight, so that was actually something that happened because of Covid that was potentially something we would definitely do again down the line,” she said.
She added that many of the musicians and artists were just keen to perform – having spent the past 12 months not able to play a gig in front of a live audience. “People thought why not take a chance on Idol because it’s not like they’re going to be doing this summer tour,” Wolflick said. “Their schedules were very freed up. They were able to come and participate when they might have not in the past because they thought they were going to be on a small indie tour traveling around the country, and none of that was accessible anymore.”
Normally, the team would travel to five locations across the country for the judges’ auditions, but this season they only went to three across California – LA, San Diego and Ojai. They introduced a 180-degree room in the audience location to surprise people with family members or others to get more emotions. “American Idol is about dreams and talent and emotion, there’s a lot of emotion and families, and the judges aren’t going to be able to hug everybody,” Kinane said. “Lionel Richie hugs 100 people a day and Katy is rollerskating around the room, and Luke is up playing his guitar. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get that literally physical connection, and they had some family members but not that many because we weren’t allowed to. We came up with this 180-degree room … which got you a different emotion. You got tears and warmth and a lot more people — old grannies — who wouldn’t be able to travel, and dogs and birds and pets. It’s something again, like the audition process, we’re going to keep this going forward as well. It worked really well.”
Wolflick said each year there is usually a theme, and with Perry recently giving birth to a daughter, 2021 felt like the year of the young mom and dad. “Maybe it was the Idol Across America, they were able to just not get a babysitter and they could just Zoom from home, but it was actually so interesting to see the way that Katy interacted with these young moms or you know, these stories because she has a totally new perspective in life,” she said.
One of the noisiest contestants this year was Claudia Conway, daughter of former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was eliminated last week after singing a version of Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” with Hannah Everhart. “She was not a novelty — we wouldn’t have let her on the show if she couldn’t sing,” Kinane said. “She really wants to change her life, and I think she got to the right place.”
It now will be for the viewers at home to decide who gets to the right place of winning the whole show and becoming this year’s American Idol.