When “American Idol” returns with new episodes next Sunday, it will adapt to these coronavirus quarantine times by taking place for the first time in the homes of the show’s contestants, musicians, judges, mentors and host.
After two weeks of airing clip specials — giving producers enough time to rethink and readjust “Idol” to our new stay-at-home reality — “Idol” returns on April 26 with its final top 20 contestants scattered across the country. Meanwhile, host Ryan Seacrest will anchor the show from his house, where he happens to have the “American Idol” desk from its original Fox run, a relic he took home after “Idol” ended its original run. He has now dug the desk out of the garage and placed in his living room.
“I think we’re about 45 different locations that we’re producing the show from now, remotely,” said Trish Kinane, the showrunner and executive producer of “American Idol,” as well as the president of entertainment at “Idol” production company Fremantle. (Fremantle and Industrial Media’s 19 Entertainment produce “Idol.”) “So it’s quite an operation.”
The “Idol” performance episodes won’t be live, but will be produced “live to tape,” in order to give the show’s producers a chance to edit the show into something broadcast-ready. (It also keeps the show’s contestants on an equal playing field, in case someone’s camera fails.) And because of the clip specials that aired over the past two weeks, this year’s final round of “Idol” has been reduced to four episodes — which means there will be multiple eliminations each week. On next Sunday’s episode, the top 20 will be whittled down to 10, for starters.
Given the unusual circumstances, and the fact that the contestants won’t be playing for audiences or in the show’s usual live stage at Los Angeles’ Television City, ABC alternative series senior VP Rob Mills said he believed “four weeks is the right amount of time for these people to perform. It’s going to be more cutthroat because you’re going to see more people eliminated each week than normal. So there is going to be less room for error. And I think that will make it more exciting.”
Kinane said the producers have sent iPhone cameras and lighting kits to all of the contestants, and have also been working with the singers on how and where to shoot their performances at home.
“I think some of the looks that we and the kids together are pulling off in their homes are great,” she said. “One of our contestants took it upon himself to build a little stage in his garage with backdrops, and it’s looking amazing. They’re bringing out cushions and tapestries and goodness knows what else out of their cupboards. We’ve got one girl who has a lake as a backdrop, which looks fantastic. I’m proud of the quality that we hope to be able to deliver.”
The producers have also been consulting with contestants on how to fix their wardrobe, makeup and hair by themselves. “There’s been quite a bit of online shopping with them,” Kinane said. “We’ve been trying to give them some of the ‘Idol’ experience, albeit remotely.”
That also extends to figuring out how to work with the in-house “Idol” band, led by Kris Pooley. “The vocal coaching sessions have been interesting,” Kinane said. “We’ve had a pianist in one home, the vocal coach in another home, the contestant in another home, the producers in another home, all popping in and out of Zoom rooms trying to do the vocal coaching… Kris Pooley and the guys have been producing amazing tracks virtually.”
Besides the 20 contestants, the show must also juggle Seacrest; mentor Bobby Bones; judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan; and Pooley’s band. An engineering control room in Kansas City is handling all of the incoming video, and then spitting it out again so that the judges and contestants can watch the proceedings on a split screen.
“It is a singing show so we really wanted it to be good quality sound and vocals,” Kinane said. “It’s quite an operation. We’re not doing it all via Zoom or Skype. Basically we’re doing it in a sort of much higher quality way.”
There are still plenty of challenges, especially now that it’s up to the contestants’ family members, in many cases, to handle the video shoots. “Some are great and some can’t even put a tripod up,” she said. “Our Zoom sessions trying to teach people how to place a camera and put a tripod up have been hilarious. It’s a very sort of mom-and-pop experience putting all that together.”
Kinane said the show will still feature celebrity guests, and keep as many “Idol” trademarks as it can. “It’s still ‘Idol,’ we want it to look and feel like ‘Idol,’ but it will have a different perspective,” she said. “I was keen on there being real interaction between Ryan and the judges, and the judges and the contestants. I think we’ve solved that largely by our engineering. They really are seeing each other properly. For example, we’ve been working hard on the latency issues so that people aren’t talking over each other all the time.”
Kinane said she also took advantage of Fremantle’s global operations and how the company has been handling similar shows in other regions. “We make these big shows, ‘Idol’ and ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Got Talent,’ all around the world,” she said. “There’s a lot of experimentation going on in our different territories. So I’ve been able to call up people and go, ‘What are you doing? How are you getting over no audience thing?’ We’re all sharing ideas and whether you’re in Indonesia or London or LA, it’s the same problem: How to do a huge studio, glossy show without the audience.”
Until a few weeks ago, ABC and Fremantle thought there might still be a chance the rest of this “Idol” season might still eventually be able to happen in studio. Half of the set had already been loaded into Television City when the work stoppage happened.
After the most recent original episodes, shot in February at Disney’s Aulani resort in Hawaii, “Idol” was supposed to go immediately into the live studio episodes. At first, the thought was to hold the rest of the show until the world was back up and running — but it soon became apparent that such an all-clear sign was months away. “That just felt so unsatisfying,” Mills said. “It felt much better to find a way for the show to go on and do something that feels different but still feels like Idol.”
Kinane said the discussion switched to the fact that “Idol” had momentum, and postponing the show didn’t feel right — or fair to the contestants. Then came the idea of still doing the studio show, but with social distancing, a smaller crew and no audience.
“Actually, it got quite exciting at one point we were talking about doing Disney night with an augmented reality audience full of Disney characters which would have been quite fun — having lions and mice in the audience,” she said. “But then things became clear that we weren’t going to be able to be in the studio at all for a while.”
Then the idea of doing a hybrid — several weeks of remote broadcasts, with the final episodes in studio — was at first a possibility, then nixed. “It’s been a very interesting couple of months,” Kinane said. “‘Let’s plan for this, oh, no, no, let’s plan for that.’ It’s changing by the minute. The focus then switched to it all being remote.”
The finale will be the one moment where “American Idol” will be broadcast live — and that will only be during the final moments, when the results of the show are revealed. “That’s going to be a challenge as well,” Kinane said.
As for next season, ABC and Fremantle are already looking at how the current stay-at-home mandates will affect “Idol” auditions. Normally the “Idol” bus rolls around the country throughout the summer, scoping for talent.
“We have no idea if we’ll be able to have crowds of people together,” Kinane said. ” I think it’s also going to affect next year as well in some way. We always do online and Skype auditions, but the most raw talent, the most interesting talent in many cases comes from people who just turn up out of nowhere at one of the places where our buses stop. I don’t want to lose that element because I think that’s what makes the show special. Otherwise you’d just have producers on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram all day. That’s what I’m thinking about now for next year.”
Meanwhile, Fremantle must also figure out a similar contingency plan for its NBC summer series “America’s Got Talent.” That show may be harder to produce via at-home remotes, however.
“‘AGT’ is a different beast with because of the nature of the acts with acrobats and light shows and all of that,” Kinane said. “‘AGT’ is a little bit further down the line, so there’s a little bit more time, and who knows what the state of the virus will be by then. We’re all people who are used to being able to plan, being able to be in control and say, ‘We’re doing this.’ But we just don’t know. We can’t make those decisions, which is a very different experience.”