Idol Worship

'American Idol' Was the First Show to React to COVID. Can They Be the First to 'Pivot Back' to Normal?

Ryan Seacrest, Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Bobby Bones on 'American Idol.'
ABC/Brian Bowen Smith

Ryan Seacrest, Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Bobby Bones on 'American Idol.'

From Zoom auditions alongside "Idol" vets to virtually bringing friends & families to the contestants, showrunners tell Billboard how they're making the new season (premiering Sunday) "as normal as possible."

How do you make a reality show that feels normal when most of us are still living in very not-normal times? That's the challenge that faced the producers of ABC's American Idol, which was forced to go remote during the live shows and finale last season as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread across the country.

"Our aim was to make this season of Idol as normal as possible," showrunner Trish Kinane tells Billboard, noting that they were the first show to go fully remote last year at a time when the highly communicable disease was shutting down TV and movie production. "We want to be the first show to pivot back to something resembling normality so we had that lens through which we look at every phase of the format."

That focus for the new season -- premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC -- began with the auditions, which the Idol team had to pull off in a whole new way since they weren't able to send out the usual Idol buses and teams of producers to packed arenas and convention centers where contestants would typically line up for hours by the thousands to wait their turn.

Instead, Kinane says they came up with "Idol Across America," teaming with Zoom to create a custom audition process that tried to mirror the old way of auditioning as closely as possible. The new style included creating a huge Zoom room contestants signed in to from home, where they might find ex-Idol cast members sharing stories of their auditions as well as advice. The singers were then filtered through to producers in breakout rooms, which Kinane says actually ended up working to the show's advantage and allowed Idol to virtually visit all 50 states for the first time in its 19-year history.

"Everybody got seen by an Idol producer," according to Kinane, who says she then sorted through the cream of the crop with Idol executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick. "It was a really efficient and condensed way of doing the auditions, and we got to see people's homes, their families, their dogs, their grandmas. It had a very different vibe," Wolflick says.

Though last year's third season on ABC -- after 15 on Fox -- featured an abrupt shift to performances from the singer's homes, there was a warmth and intimacy to the rare peek at the contestant's everyday existence that both women say they didn't want to completely abandon as Idol carefully plotted a return to a drastically modified version of its traditional in-studio format.

One of the upsides of the remote audition process was that singers who couldn't typically  afford travel to audition cities were able to participate this time around as Wolflick says producers "dug in every corner of the country. Alaska, Hawaii, everyone got a shot... Creating this virtual convention center sounded like a daunting task, but when the stars began to align for us, we were like, this is so efficient and honestly exhilarating at the same time."

Among the ex-Idol stars who showed up to lend a hand were season 2 champ Ruben Studdard, who gave words of advice on two different days in Alabama, along with fellow winners David Cook (season 7), Nick Fradiani (season 14), Laine Hardy (season 17) and last season's quarantine queen Just Sam. Joining them were nearly two dozen other popular contestants, including Elliott Yamin, Haley Reinhart, Julia Gargano and season 1 runner-up Justin Guarini, who all offered pointers and compared notes with their home state contenders.

The new system did lead to some funny, awkward moments, including one contestant who'd been waiting in the main room so long producers found him asleep on his couch when they finally Zoomed in. In general, though, Kinane says there was a more relaxed tone that helped take some of the fear out of the audition process for many of the singers. In addition, she says producers saw some "pretty raw talent" from the types of auditioners who might not normally have taken the day off from work to travel or who didn't think they were good enough.

"The thing about Idol is that we don't take people who are super-polished because part of the Idol process is they go through the Hollywood week and we see them transform," Kinane says. "But also we got some people who were artists who might have hung it up and didn't think they'd audition for a talent show, but when we make it easy, they were willing to give it a go, especially since nobody is really able to do gigs right now."

Another novel element of the at-home auditions, according to Wolflick, were singers who grabbed their dads to play guitar for them, looked around for props in their house and one who, when asked who inspired them to sing, said, "Oh, my grandma. She's 94. She's downstairs. Do you want to meet her?"

And while the novelty of seeing the potential Idols at home last season was refreshing, Kinane notes that the team did travel for some auditions in October, aware that the footage would not air until February or March. "We knew they couldn't bring four or five family members with them to the auditions... and we didn't want [the footage] to seem super COVID-y, for lack of a better expression, so we were concerned about, 'How do we get the emotion of everyone having their families with them and family support and warmth, the very essence of the Idol experience, if the judges can't hug anybody and the family is not there?'" she says.

Their workaround included a huge, 180-degree screen set up at the audition locations that filled up half the room where contestants waited before going in to sing for judges. To their surprise, their family, dog or, in one case, a fireman's entire firehouse crew would pop up on the massive display to wish them good luck. After the audition, whether they got a golden ticket or not, their support system would be there again on the screen and, Kinane says, "The emotion from that was huge, just tears all over the place, much more than we expected. Again, you saw into their lives and, actually, much more people. ... They wouldn't have been able to bring the whole fire department to the audition city."

What about the judges, who are known for being very hands-on with their charges? Kinane says touchy-feely Lionel Richie handed out more than 100 handkerchiefs instead of usual hugs whenever someone cried, while Katy Perry was still "up and running around the room, but far away from the contestants." Luke Bryan joked often about not getting enough exercise during lockdown and missing the road, which led him to jump up more often to jam with the singers, even as host Ryan Seacrest continued to greet the golden ticket winners outside the doors, from a safe distance of course.

The goal was to not make the show feel like it was taking place in a pandemic vacuum, so there will be masks in the back of shots. You may also notice that Hollywood Week contains the usual 200-plus strivers, but no audience of friends and family, and judges keeping their distance. "On the whole we tried to not make it look different," says Kinane, with Wolflick adding that the coast-to-coast Zooming might make all of us who've been homebound for the past year feel like we're finally traveling a little bit, if only virtually.

"We're not pretending COVID isn't happening, but we haven't leaned into it," Kinane says, admitting that at press time producers had no idea what it will look like in April when live rounds begin and whether there will be an audience to watch the eliminations. There was also what she calls a "huge" cost increase to filming the show in as normal a fashion as possible, which included testing all contestants before they came to Hollywood and again when they arrived, then quarantining them once they were in place and testing every few days.

"All those tests, all those hotel rooms, they cost a fortune and everything takes twice as long," she says, with additional costs tied to finding bigger spaces for auditions and locations, ensuring proper ventilation and rigidly monitoring the various "bubbles" that crew and cast were in to make sure they didn't cross over and create contamination issues.

Considering the massive number of cast and crew who came through the process, Kinane marvels that there was just one contestant who tested positive -- and then negative several other times afterwards -- resulting in a hotel-room audition after he was quarantined and contact-traced. For now, she says, the live shows are still up in the air, but Kinane fully intends to be the first show to pivot back to a full lights and makeup production when it's safe.