EXCLUSIVE: Megan Michaels Wolflick grew up watching her dad, David Michaels, produce the Olympic Games for NBC.
The sporting achievements in Athens and Beijing would have led to a few tears, but now Michaels Wolflick is in charge of making viewers weep after taking sole charge of American Idol as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Michaels Wolflick, whose musical interest was sparked by artists like The Cranberries and Tori Amos, took over as sole showrunner of the ABC singing contest following Trish Kinane’s decision to step down earlier this year.
As it enters production on its fifth season on ABC, Michaels Wolflick tells Deadline about her plans for the upcoming run and how she’s aiming to keep the Fremantle-produced show belting out the hits for many more years.
Michaels Wolflick (left) is currently in Austin, Texas, the first stop of a three city tour that will also take in Nashville, Tennessee and the Sunset Strip in LA for the show’s auditions portion.
Last season, the show was being produced in the middle of the pandemic, so they stayed in California – Ojai, San Diego and Hollywood – for the auditions episodes. This year, they’re able to travel a bit further and spend a bit more time in each. “Now we’re going to the biggest music cities in America, we’re able to go out again. We’re able to go back out to the places that make this show sing,” she told Deadline.
The pandemic also forced the team to move away from its annual bus tour and replace it with Idol Across America, a live virtual audition set-up, that allowed them to find contestants in every town and city in the country, from the comfort of their own homes.
Michaels Wolflick believes that this has benefited the show and has allowed them to find contestants that are more “tapped into” the format rather than just happen to live near one of their bus stops.
“Controversial as it may seem, I would never do the bus tour again. It doesn’t matter if we’re out of Covid for 20 years. If you didn’t live within five hours of one of those stops, you might not want to get in the car. [Now], we have people in the broom cupboard of their job singing on a five minute break. I can see people’s house, I can talk to parents, I could never do that on the bus tour. I get so much more out of it, not to mention that I get a really interesting perspective on the youth of today and trends, what posters are on their walls,” she adds.
Michaels Wolflick has been with the show since 2003, joining as an AP during the middle of season two. She moved on up through ranks, initially starting by putting together packages on the likes of Gladys Knight for exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, before eventually becoming co-showrunner and now showrunner. She said that she was “honored” to take the top role, although it’s bittersweet given Kinane’s departure, calling the Idol team a family, with many people having worked on the show for many years, including for the Fox version before it jumped to ABC.
Now, she says the show is such as well-oiled machine, it doesn’t need reinventing every season, but it just needs a few touch ups to keep it fresh. “We’re refreshing it but the base is still there. It’s like if the kitchen needs a remodel. If we decided to tear the house down, people would notice, it’s a subtle refreshment. The format still works… but we’re always trying to find ways to push the technology envelope.”
Last season, Chayce Beckham won the show with a song – 23 – that he penned himself. Michaels Wolflick said that Beckham and Alejandro Aranda, who finished runner up in 2019, have opened the door for more people to come with their own material. “Other shows don’t encourage original songs,” she adds. “This year, we’re seeing people who had never tried out for a show before. I feel very excited about the talent we have. Last year, everyone was a bit of a deer in headlights, either having not performed for a while or never having performed because they’re 15. Now, they’re back in the groove.”
The exec producer said that the total number of registrations and those turning up doubled this season and the search has been helped further by the success of apps such as TikTok, which has encouraged more people to pick up a microphone (or at least their phone).
American Idol has faced a number of challengers over the years, with the likes of The Voice and more recently The Masked Singer.
But Michaels Wolflick says that she doesn’t fear the competition. “It almost makes me want to strip Idol back even more, to its core. We are a show that literally takes the guy with dirty boots and makes him a star, like A Star Is Born. When Carrie Underwood walked in to St Louis in 2004, she was wearing her Lee Jeans and Old Navy top, that is the core of the show. That’s what America identifies with and is what is tried and true about the format.”
Outside of American Juniors, a kids spinoff that ran on Fox for one season in 2003, there has been very little talk of Idol spinoffs or extensions and she doesn’t expect any further attempts. “It’s tempting, there’s a million things we could do,” she said. “But staying pure and true, keeping focus, and we’re on once a year, there’s a purity in that, we’re not diluting our product.”
The show’s judges – Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan – have remained in place since it began airing on ABC in 2018 and host Ryan Seacrest has been fronting the show since it premiered in 2002.
In March, this quartet was able to remind themselves what a live studio audience looked like when around 50 people were let in to Television City for its All Star Duets round. Michaels Wolflick said that they’re optimistic that they’ll be able to go even bigger next year, although warned that this can change at any point due to the nature of the pandemic.
“The dream is to have an audience back in, an active audience. It felt good [last season], but I missed the people in the mosh pit. If we can get to a place where we can have people in the mosh pit, that atmosphere on the floor, it’s a concert, it’s a gig, that’s our ultimate goal,” she said.
Michaels Wolflick and her team are now focusing on season 20, fresh from Bat City and Music City, teasing a wedding gift-inspired platinum-related twist for the coming run and a number of familiar faces returning. “With 20 years, we’re going to celebrate what’s come before, while we also celebrate the new talent,” she added.