Now that he’s back as an “American Idol” exec producer, Nigel Lythgoe has an idea — or 20 — about how to reboot the franchise.
First up: Lythgoe told Daily Variety on Wednesday that he’d like to find a way to bring former “Idol” judge Paula Abdul back into the fold.
Such a coup might be tough to pull off: Abdul is committed to a new dance show on CBS. But if there’s any way to nab her services, Lythgoe wants her back.
“I still love Paula,” Lythgoe said. “She’s signed to CBS, probably exclusively, but I’d recommend we have her in a heartbeat.”
Lythgoe also has some strong opinions on what the “Idol” judging panel should look like — and what has gone wrong with the show in recent seasons.
Two years after leaving “Idol,” Lythgoe will once again be in a position to act on those thoughts. Lythgoe’s deal on “Idol” was finalized earlier this week, which means he’s now set to once again help run the show along side fellow exec producers Simon Fuller, Cecile Frot-Coutaz and Ken Warwick.
Lythgoe served as an exec producer on “Idol” for its first seven seasons but wasn’t replaced after departing at the start of season eight.
So when Fuller asked his friend — the two co-founded Big Red 2 Entertainment with CKX — to return to the show, it didn’t take much to integrate Lythgoe back into the mix.
“Nigel helped to define the show I created almost 10 years ago, mentoring our judging panel and nurturing our talent,” Fuller said. “His unbridled passion has been missed… I felt it was an important time to collaborate with Nigel once again to help redefine ‘American Idol.’
The exec producer returns in time to help “Idol” make its final decision on a new “Idol” panel, replacing Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres, and perhaps Kara DioGuardi as well.
Addressing the ongoing talk that Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler are on the short list to join as judges, Lythgoe gave a thumb’s up to both. (The L.A. Times reported Wednesday that music industry exec Jimmy Iovine is also expected to be a part of the show.)
“They can knock her film career, but (audiences) know she’s a good actress,” Lythgoe said of Lopez. “And as J-Lo she had some great pop records. If she joins, I’m happy.”
In the case of Aerosmith frontman Tyler, Lythgoe said he liked the rock star’s unpredictable persona.
“He has come through that whole rock ‘n’ roll circus,” Lythgoe said. “Why wouldn’t you want a legend there? You never know what he’s going to say. That, as a TV producer, you’re interested in.”
Incumbent judge Randy Jackson appears to be safe: Lythgoe calls him the show’s “barnacle.”
There’s one name that Lythgoe quickly shot down: His own.
“You do not follow Sean Connery in the role of James Bond,” he said. “You follow George Lazenby. Simon Cowell is brilliant. He’s as honest as one is possible to be. But we have to move on. They would want me to play that part.”
And Lythgoe, who indeed played that part — dubbed “Nasty Nigel” on “Pop Stars” and “Pop Idol” in the U.K. — said he didn’t think “Idol” should go with another caustic Brit in the role.
Lythgoe said he believed the show lost sight of the judges’ interaction last season.
“It’s not because I disliked any of them, but the chemistry wasn’t there,” he said. “It almost felt like Simon Cowell turned his back on Ellen. It felt uncomfortable.”
The show’s producers have to consider how the team interacts before locking the new judges, said Lythgoe. “I do like the fact that among the names being discussed at the moment, they’ve been through the process of being discovered and becoming a star,” he said.
Lythgoe said he hopes the judges will be finalized by the end of the month so “Idol” can focus on its bigger problem: moving the focus back to the contestants.
“My concerns were over the last couple of years, we’ve lost sight of the fact that the most important people on the show are the young artists,” he said. “It revolved around Kara coming in to make four judges, which often left no time for them to talk. Then it was about Paula leaving, and then about Ellen joining.”
In that “muddle,” as Lythgoe called it, the show lost its touch in discovering new mega-talent. “American Idol” should be about filling the void left by the death of Michael Jackson or the personal troubles of Chris Brown, he said.
“Where did Ne-Yo or Chris Brown come from? Where did Justin Bieber come from? Where are these kids?” Lythgoe asked. “That has got to be the priority, more than anything. More than the judges’ panel. The judges are there for two minutes; the contestants are there through the entire program.”
Lythgoe would also like to temper the show’s reliance on backstories — he’s seen one too many clip packages about a contestant with a rough family life. Focus on the singing, he said.
In making changes to the show, Lythgoe said he believed “Idol” didn’t need “a huge facelift” but called the tweaks a bit of “spring cleaning.”
“You don’t want to do too much,” said Lythgoe, who admitted that he’s been accused of making too many changes recently on “So You Think You Can Dance.” “Your audience can turn against you. It’s a very careful process.”
But Lythgoe also noted that “Idol” has forever evolved, with new tweaks and changes every season.
The producer admitted he felt competitive against the other singing competitions on the smallscreen, including Cowell’s upcoming “The X-Factor.” But he also dismisses concerns that Cowell’s departure will devastate “Idol” viewership.
“People say it’s all over, yet it works in 70-odd countries without Simon Cowell,” Lythgoe said.
As for concerns that a Cowell-less “Idol” might hurt ratings? “It just lost ratings with Simon Cowell still in the show.”
Lythgoe said he had to take a beat after Fuller first asked him to return to “Idol.” Beyond “So You Think You Can Dance,” Lythgoe also is actively involved as judge and exec producer on the show’s British version. What’s more, Lythgoe has been busy with several charities and organizations, heading L.A.’s Brit Week, serving on the board of L.A.’s Best, serving as chairman of the British Academy in L.A. and running his own Dizzy Feet charity.
“It doesn’t improve my wallet, but it makes me feel good,” Lythgoe said of his extracurricular activities. “But I’ll have to get myself released from a number of those.”
In exchange, Lythgoe promises to expand “Idol Gives Back,” the “American Idol” charity event that returned in 2010 after a year off in 2009.
Ultimately, Lythgoe called his return to “Idol” a “win-win.”
“I left as it was going down, and I’m coming back on the hope of lifting it up,” he said. “I’m doing it hopefully to see that the talent is out there. I know it is. Everything’s about using that young talent and doing it right.”
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