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'American Idol' Exec Producers Talk New Plans for Season Finale & Show's Greatest Moments

Trish Kinane Megan Michaels Wolflick
Lisa Rose/Courtesy of Fremantle

American Idol’s Executive Producer & Showrunner Trish Kinane and Executive Producer Megan Michaels Wolflick.

If you pause the credit roll on a series like American Idol and take in all the names, you'll see there are over 100 people working together to make a weekly program possible. Two of the first names you see at the beginning of each show are executive producers Trish Kinane and Megan Michaels Wolflick. Showrunner Kinane, who is also executive producer of America's Got Talent, joined Idol in season 13 and Wolflick has been with the series since season two. The two women sat down with Billboard to talk about the state of Idol in season 17 and revealed a surprising innovation for this year's finale, which will air on May 19.

What is the challenge of producing a series that is in its 17th season?

Trish Kinane: American Idol is a classic format and it works and it's really simple, so the challenge is to freshen it up without ruining it. When the show came off the air from Fox, Megan and I and our teams all sat down and discussed everything, and in the end, we decided we don't want to go for gimmicks, because if you go too far down that road, it's not American Idol anymore. You make it into a different show. On the other hand, there were lots of ways to freshen it up, so that's what we concentrated on. The new broadcaster, ABC, has a very particular audience which research shows is very aligned with the American Idol audience. Being on that broadcaster with the synergy and opportunity gave us a real impetus to freshen it up. And of course, the new judging panel is amazing and even better in the second year than the first year, because their charisma and their friendship has grown. So we are still looking at every single element of the show from the judges to how to stage the auditions, where to do the auditions and how to find the talent. The new set and the studio gives us a lot of variety.

Megan Michaels Wolflick: The contestants we have every year are also part of the refreshment. With social media and the way people digest music now, it's fascinating. They're pushing us forward. It's so interesting what these contestants bring to the table, like Alejandro [Aranda], who's creating his own tracks in his bedroom. It's evolving and constantly changing. We have a crop of contestants this year who are constantly surprising us each and every week. To be surprised is the great element of watching a show.

You mentioned social media. I remember when the contestants weren't allowed to be on social media.

Kinane: American Idol has always been innovative. American Idol taught America how to text. You saw Ryan Seacrest with this huge phone. "Press these buttons. That's how you do it." Idol has always been at the forefront of technology and I think that's part of the reason why it's been successful as well. We enabled America to vote for their favorite contestants and that had never been done before. Now we're doing the real-time vote, and that has never been done before. So once again, that was part of our refreshment that really was organic to the show. Because we knew – and I think the audience knew after 16 years – to have a results show, there was nothing in there. You didn't want to sit through endless padding to know who was through. So a few years ago, we dropped the results show and amalgamated it all into one show. But the real holy grail was how do you get all of America, east coast and west coast, voting. You can do a Twitter vote or some other gimmick but it's not real. I understand why the west coast would feel left out. So for the first time, because ABC enabled us to be on a Sunday night and they worked it out with their affiliates that we're the first show in the history of American television to be able to do this, other than awards shows or sports shows. That was a major achievement. And the viewers love it, because at the beginning of the show, you start voting and at the end of the show, somebody's going home because of what you do. People don't want to hang around anymore. People are impatient.

How will this impact the season finale on May 19?

Kinane: You can vote throughout the finale for the winner of American Idol. In previous years, it has always been a performance show, an overnight vote and [the results show] was all filler.

Wolflick: It will be a three-hour live real-time vote finale with the result at the end. We're going to have our traditional competition where the singers will compete, as well as the hometown hero packages everyone loves, as well as the all-star shebang celebrity extravaganza. So it's literally going to be a show for everyone. There's going to be competition. We have a celebration. We have a winner at the end. It's going to be amazing. This is the first time we've ever done this. It's always been a traditional overnight vote, so we are honestly taking it to the next level in my opinion by doing this real-time vote on the finale.

Aside from changes made when the show moved to ABC, what changes did you make between seasons 16 and 17?

Wolflick: It's about the way we reach out to talent to begin with – the different platforms where we look for talent. We went to the Aulani Disney Resort and Spa for the final judgment, which was an event we had never done before, taking that element of the competition on the road. I think the real-time voting on the finale is one of the big platforms that we're excited about as far as a new innovation this season. My brother is an indie photographer from Echo Park and American Idol is the exact opposite of what he would be into and he is watching the show. He is obsessed with it. So for some reason, this season, with the mix of contestants we have, there is something magical going on and I feel really fired up about it, because as an executive producer on the show, I can't wait. I feel like I'm at a concert. After having done this for so long, it feels like day one to me, and that to me is the spark of a good season.

At what point did you realize you had such a great group of contestants?

Wolflick: From the first step. After we go out, we're in the office watching people's YouTube videos, digging deeper with them, wanting to know more about them. That's one step. Hollywood Week is another step. To me, that's where you can see. That's where Carrie Underwood came into her own in season four. When you're seeing everyone, how they stack up against each other. It's boot camp and you're like, "Wow, this is beyond a solid season."

During each season, when do you start to think who the winner might be -- and are you right?

Wolflick: I remember the day in Savannah in 2011 when Phillip Phillips walked in the room and I thought, "This guy is going to win this season." At the time, we didn't allow guitars in the judging room and I ran and talked to Nigel [Lythgoe] and said, "This guy has got to play guitar in the room, because it's not going to read without it." He had to do an a cappella song, as everyone does, but then he got his guitar out and did a song and blew the judges away. Other seasons have been murky. Maybe that's the true testament of a great season when there is not a clear winner. This season I have no idea who's going to win. I can see so many people up there with the confetti falling on May 19 and that has to be the mark of an amazing season. I've never thought about so many different people having that moment.

Do each of you have an all-time favorite moment in Idol history?

Wolflick: When Joshua Ledet was voted off and he performed his goodbye song [James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"], it was an electric moment. He was going home, but he was singing goodbye to America. I counted 15 people in the front row bawling their eyes out. The impact of that moment was just very powerful. Knowing that music can literally change a room was amazing.

Kinane: Kelly Clarkson's "Piece By Piece." When she stood up and sang that, she was pregnant. Her hormones were all over the place. It was about her dad leaving her. It was amazing. It was special in the room and we knew immediately. Social media went crazy straight away. I said to [Kelly's husband] Brandon [Blackstock] afterward, "Is this song out?" It was out as an album track, but it wasn't what she did in our studio. So we discussed it, and then the next day, he got her to go into the studio with a piano, stripped back, and we recorded it and we called it the "Idol Version." It had [millions of views] within days and it was nominated for a Grammy. It was very special, not just in Idol, but in my whole TV career.

Is there a moment in Idol history that you would re-do if you could?

Wolflick: When the phone numbers were wrong a number of years ago. That's human error and that's going to happen. That's the excitement of live TV. That's why we're so lucky to be on this show and have live TV, because anything can happen and it's exciting and it's fun.

Any other stand-out moments?

Kinane: There's a Ryan Seacrest moment which illustrates how good Ryan is. In Season 14, the contestants were all sitting on the stage watching the other people perform and Joey Cook was voted out and was about to go home. She was a good friend of Quentin Alexander and he said, "No, I can't believe this. No, that's not right. That's not right." Harry Connick Jr. said, "Well, hang on. What do you mean? Are you criticizing the show, because it's America that voted?" We were about to go to commercial break. Ryan could have said, "Oh well, it's all kicking off here on Idol. We'll see you after the break." He didn't, because he's so smart. He said, "Hold it a minute. Let's stop. Let's not go to the break. Quentin, what's your problem? Come over here and talk to Harry." And he came over and talked to Harry, who said, "Don't criticize this show. It's very disrespectful." And Quentin replied, "No, I wasn't criticizing the show. I'm just upset my friend went home." And Ryan let that breathe and then went to the commercial break. It was absolutely brilliant. It was a real moment and he knew how to do that and he knew he could do it and not upset the rest of the show. That shows how hard [hosting the show] is but if you're really good, you can do that with confidence.

How long can American Idol run?

Kinane: As long as there's talent.

Wolflick: And as long as dreams of being a singer are alive.

Kinane: It might not be in exactly the same form. People like the performances and people like to discover talent. Look at how they're reacting to this year's very diverse talent. Alejandro is unlike anybody we've ever had on the show, and people will never get tired of that. They love it. So I think American Idol as a brand in some form or another could go on forever.

Wolflick: I read an interesting article about the music industry being very segmented now with stars on TikTok, stars on Instagram, stars here. Music is kind of divided but American Idol to me is the music unifier, because you have the 15-year-old kid who's super into watching it, as well as the moms. Look at our top 10. No two are alike, and they represent all different facets of America. That wasn't our intention. It's what organically happened, which is so magical.

When people find out that you work on American Idol, what's the question you get most from the public?

Kinane: How do I get tickets?

Wolflick: In the old era, it used to be two questions. Number one, is Simon really that mean? And number two, do the judges really see all those people? This season it's all about, "You work on American Idol? Oh, I love Ashley. Oh, I love Dimitrius." They want to tell you how much they love that person, why they love that person and how many times they've watched their performances.

This season we had the first finalist who was born after Kelly Clarkson won, Riley Thompson.

Kinane: That just backs up that this show can go on forever. And last year, we had an Idol who was born on the same day that Idol was launched.

Wolflick: We had a girl this year whose mom had auditioned. It was an interesting full circle moment. It's very exciting to know these kids grew up watching the show. Laci [Kaye Booth] submitted a clip from when she was watching Hollywood Week of season four. It's fascinating to get these clips of kids watching the show and documenting that.

Kinane: American Idol is ingrained into the culture. You walk out on the street and you ask anyone, "What's American Idol?" They'll know. And families watch it together. It's still a family show and that's important. And it's "feel good" and it really does make dreams come true. Because even if you don't win, as we know from Jennifer Hudson, Katharine McPhee and Adam Lambert and all the others, you can get a really good career out of American Idol.

You're both still enthusiastic about the show. Is that unusual after all these years?

Kinane: I've only been here six years. Megan's been on the show since season two. It's a very special show and we're still passionate about it. That's why we want to make it as good as it can be. And by the way, it's really great to work on. It's very rewarding to us as producers. To meet all these kids and hear their stories and see their talent, it's exciting. We're coming to the end of this season in a few weeks. We're already planning the casting for next season. We've got an audition call coming out on Disney night, so we're going to start the audition process again. We've got the buses ready to go out and the judges' calendars all sorted out, so we're getting ready to do it all again and it's exciting.

Any other surprises coming up?

Kinane: There's a clip show on April 22, "Meet Your Finalists." We've got eight or nine-minute in depth pieces about the contestants, with material that's not been seen. If they sang two songs in Hollywood Week and we only showed one, we're going to show the other one. It's going to be really interesting if you want to know more about who the top eight are. That's a two-hour show.

Wolflick: We've never done a deep dive on our finalists.

Kinane: Because a lot of people are saying, "We love these contestants. We want to know more about them," so on this show, you can find out more.