Idol Worship

Inside 'Idol': Show Creator Simon Fuller, Scott Borchetta & More on Building the Billion-Dollar Franchise and Turning Contestants Into Artists

american idol, simon fuller
Robin Marchant/FilmMagic

Simon Fuller photographed in 2011.

How to Launch A Billion-Dollar Franchise

The 55-year-old Svengali behind the Spice Girls created American Idol’s British predecessor, Pop Idol, in 2001, then teamed up with production partners FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment to sell it to Fox. Some 60 international editions later, the founder/CEO of XIX Entertainment and his Fremantle counterpart, CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, had a billion-dollar brand on their hands. 

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Bring The Drama
The keywords that kicked off the Idol idea: Interactive; meaningful; engagement; soap opera; sport; drama; dreams. “It was about empowering the viewer,” says Fuller. “And making winning mean something. That’s how I began, by piecing together all of these thoughts.” Adds Frot-Coutaz: "It's a Cinderella story. It's about undiscovered talent, transformation and participation. Fuller would disagree with me, but I've always contended that people don't tune in because of the music -- it's the background to it all."

Rock The Vote
A veteran of the music industry, Fuller looked for a shortcut to the A&R process and found it. “My original motivation was to bypass going to the gatekeepers in radio, television and the media -- and hoping they’ll love my artists -- and go directly to the consumer. Have them tell me which [artists] they like the most. My obsession wasn’t creating a TV show, it was creating a phenomena that would touch as many people as possible.”

Planet Idol
“How do you create a franchise like Idol? Think big," says Fuller. "I always thought it could connect worldwide. In music, assets are global.” Frot-Coutaz concurs: "We knew that if we got it right, it would travel."

Sean McCabe
Scott Borchetta and Jason Morey talk Fox's American Idol.

How to A&R An Idol

Turning an Idol winner into a recording artist is the responsibility of 53-year-old Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta (the show’s in-house mentor since season 13) and 19 Entertainment executive vp/worldwide head of music (and Miley Cyrus’ former manager) Jason Morey, 43. The two break down their process.

Find An Identity
“When the finalists are going through such an exhaustive and intense six months, they’re not thinking about ‘Who am I as an artist?’ They’re thinking, ‘How will I pull together this performance for next week? How am I going to win the show?’ We try to steer them in the direction of who they should be later on.”

BORCHETTA “In the last five or six weeks of the competition, we try to give them the kind of songs that fans would expect to hear on their record.”

Learn To Write
MOREY “I subscribe to the Clive Davis school of thought: Not everybody’s a writer, but every Idol should try.”

Be Patient
BORCHETTA “Like everything at Big Machine Label Group, the music comes out when it’s ready. With [season 14 winner] Nick Fradiani, we didn’t come out with an album right away because we didn’t want to rush it. Neither Big Machine nor 19 want to put out a piece of product.”

Sean McCabe
Michael Orland and Debra Byrd talk Fox's American Idol.

How to Nurse A Sick Contestant Through A Live Show

With American Idol’s demanding weekly schedule, illness is inevitable, and the tender throats of the emotionally fragile contestants are particularly vulnerable. That’s where the show’s vocal coaches come in. Associate musical director Michael Orland (seasons 1-15) and Idol alum Debra Byrd (seasons 1-11), who now works on The Voice, detail how they nurse their charges through a singer’s worst nightmare.

Assess The Malady
“At some point, everyone loses their voice on American Idol. [Common ailments include] the flu and dehydration,” says Orland. The severity of a contestant’s illness is the first thing Byrd looks at. She recalls a year-one spate of emergencies when RJ Helton took a tumble off the stage, Christina Christian got dehydrated and Nikki McKibbin sprained her foot. All three required hospitalization, but ultimately, it came down to their ability to sing, if not stand. “I deal with the voice in percentages,” she says. “How much voice do you have?”

Don't Spread It
While Byrd and Orland turn to Dr. Shawn Nasseri to treat the contestants’ ailments, they have remedies to suggest. “They can take a decongestant or combat dryness,” says Byrd. “I recommend immune system builders so infections don’t spread.”

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Try The Silent Treatment
“Someone can go on vocal silence for 24 hours and be absolutely fine," says Orland, while Byrd adds that a finalist’s work is not done the minute they step off stage. “It’s more than just the one minute and 30 seconds that they’re singing, there are interviews pre- and post-performance." 

Don't Give Your Best During Dress
Says Orland: “We constantly tell the contestants: Don’t sing out every time you rehearse. But it feels so good when they’re with the band, they can’t help but belt. We teach them that at dress rehearsal, you should sing it once and know the notes you need are there.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Billboard.