Nobody has ever had to figure out how to pull together an all-star reality singing competition finale when literally nobody on your show is in the same place. Until now. So leave it to American Idol showrunner/executive producer Trish Kinane and her ninja team of fellow producers and dedicated crew to make the most of an admittedly terrible situation in the lead-up to Sunday night’s (May 17) all-star season 18 finale.
It wasn’t easy, but Kinane tells Billboard that the Idol braintrust has learned a lot of lessons over the past few months, during which they’ve had to go from shooting the long-running series in the usual, close-quarters way, to setting up dozens of remote locations all across the country. The good news is that along the way Kinane says they’ve realized that the intimacy of having their cast sing at home, surrounded by family, has created a warmth that’s lifted the weekly drama to a new, previously untapped level.
But it also forced them to tweak the way they eliminate contestants and, depending on how physical distancing continues during the COVID-19 lockdown, what auditions for next season will look like; ABC announced on Friday (May 15) that Idol has been renewed for a fourth season on the network.
Sunday’s two-hour finale (8-10 p.m. ET, with live results on the East Coast) will feature the TV performance debut of Katy Perry‘s brand-new single “Daisies,” the first TV performance of Lionel Richie‘s 1985 charity anthem (co-written with Michael Jackson) “We Are The World” in 35 years, as well as an appearance by Luke Bryan singing his new single “One Margarita.”
Other performers will include Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo and the top 11 singing a medley of Aretha Franklin songs, two-time Idol auditioner Lauren Daigle and the top 5 singing her hit “You Say” and Rascal Flatts and Doug Kiker performing “Bless The Broken Road.”
Check out our chat with Kinane below (answers have been edited for clarity and brevity).
This is obviously the most unusual finale you’ve ever had to do, minus the fireworks raining down, the pomp and circumstance, etc. What are the unique challenges of bringing that excitement to a finale that has to be done remotely?
The very first thing we tried to do is make sure the thing doesn’t fall off the air because the results are live. Throughout the whole process of what we’ve been doing with Idol we’ve had to become internet experts — get everyone to turn off everything in their house because the internet feed is terrible and we can’t record. You’d be surprised at how many things you’ve all got running at your house. We looked at one of the contestants and he said, “Oh, I don’t have anything [running]!” And he had 46 things running in the background didn’t even know it! So the first thing is, “how on Earth do we do this finale?”
So we’ve had to rejig the technology, which means we’re not relying on internet. We have satellite vans outside of every contestant’s house and the judges and Ryan [Seacrest], sitting in their driveways. In the other sense we are just trying to work out how to give it a special moment, how to retain all the Idol things you would normally expect in a finale, like guest appearances, surprise duets, plus the live voting. So we are having surprise duets. Some of our most notable contestants from the auditions are coming back to sing with the celebrities who wrote the songs, from our celebrities homes and our contestants homes. They were a surprise when we revealed it, [but] obviously we’re not going to be able to do that live because of the situation, but the surprises were revealed live to the contestants.
The end moment of when you announce who the next American Idol… we’ve been figuring out how the hell you’d do that? Because as you say we don’t have the lights and pomp and circumstance and all that. One of the things I think is better about having done these show remotely, when we’ve been announcing the results to contestants these past few weeks they’re at home in a familiar environment with their family and the emotion of that announcement of whether they’re going through or not has been extraordinary and you don’t get that in the big studio. So when you’ve got Ryan Seacrest standing there with his hand on your shoulder and the lights flashing and the music going and 800 people in the audience in the audience screaming the contestant doesn’t normally react much. They go, “oh, okay, great.” But they don’t lose it.
Whereas giving these results so far in their homes have been very emotional and really a special moment and I think that has actually been better than what we have in the studio. So what I’m hoping is that this will continue when we announce the winner because it’s just gonna be different, they’ll be there with their family and these families, or whoever they’ve been quarantined with have really been helping putting on these shows — they’ve been moving furniture around, they’ve been hanging lights and helping with the whole process, so I think they’re really invested in it. I think it will be a very different finale moment, but I think a pretty special one and potentially even better than it would have been in the big studio.
I’ve observed that as well. It’s such a different experience to be on stage with your fellow contestants a few feet away, versus the Mother’s Day show, with your mom five feet away, maybe holding the camera. There was a real, visceral emotion to it that brought the show into a finer, different focus, making it clear that these singers are an expression of the people who helped them get where they are on Idol. Have you learned anything in this process that made you rethink how the show might go forward differently in the future whether or not we’re in lockdown for the rest of our lives?
I think we have and that is the one thing I’ll be thinking about going forward in thinking about the form it’s going to take next year. That’s the one thing that’s struck me that’s been better than it would be in the studio. There’s them “oh what a shame, they don’t get the hair and the makeup and the glitz,” but this thing is better because the families have been invested in these contestants for years to help them get where they are. But as well as that they’ve literally been helping them these last few weeks by being their roadies. I’m going to be very interested to se the winning moment and how that is in these very different circumstances on Sunday. We’ve sent them a confetti cannon to set off.
It’s gonna be quirky in someone’s front room and they’re gonna have to sweep it all up afterwards, so we’ve checked with them that they won’t mind. It’s that combination of the glitz and the importance, if you like, of the announcement of that decision which we normally do on the big stage with the very homespun nature of what we’re doing. Yes, we’ll have the confetti moment, but you’re going to have to sweep it up. We’re certainly going to be looking at the emotion that these moments have produced and how do we capture that again? We’ve been forced into it, but I think it’s revealed something rather stripped-back and back to the origins of what Idol was.
What were some of the other considerations and tweaks you’ve had to make in refocusing the finale in this more small-bore, homey way to make this new Idol 3.0 show?
The practicalities of all this are completely different. For example, our creative producer would normally be concentrating on what we put on the screens on the big stage and how we get some choreography to these kids who don’t really know how to dance or move. But now these guys are all thinking, “where can I put the lights behind three static cameras to just make the shot look a bit interesting?” It’s a totally different way of thinking. As far as the creative producer team who normally have to do with a big spectacle on the stage their job has been reinvented. They’ve all embraced it, but it’s not the same job at all.
The social engagement numbers you gave me: over 600 million video views this season, the No. 1 reality show of 2020 so far, the most popular season ever for the show on social media and Katy now being the No. 1 social talent on TV this year, passing Ellen… obviously being locked down is part of that. But is there something unique about Idol that drives that social engagement, especially at a time when people are stuck at home?
Idol had been doing well socially even before the pandemic, but I think the way viewers want to support the contestants that they love is completely in line with this extra engagement right now. They really went to help them. That’s always been the way with Idol — look at season one after 9/11 and viewers just wanted to get behind some talented kids and help them in a positive way. I think that’s what these engagements are all about. One of the comments I’ve been getting is “there aren’t enough live shows, you’re cutting too quickly. We love these people, we want to see more of them.” And now we’re getting to the point where we’re down to 11, 7, 5 contestants and we can let it breathe a little bit and get to know them more and then it’s the finale. It’s all too quick. I think the fact that they care means they’re engaged and they want to participate in the journey and the transformation. They love to see the transformation, not just physically, but of the talent of these kids as well, how it develops.
Speaking of the quick cut down. What happened? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not typically how this goes. We usually lose 1-2 contestants a week during the live portion, but this felt like a series of abrupt slashes. Was this a foreshortened season? Was this less Idol than we typically get?
Yes, it’s less live shows and we actually wanted more live shows because the viewers were telling us last year that by the time we get to the studio shows they really want to see more of these kids and see how they’re developing. And we had more live shows in the schedule, but because of the pandemic we had to readjust, so we put those two weeks of clip shows in, American Idol: This is Me, four hours of getting to know the contestants a bit more. Essentially that bought us a bit more time… Those two shows gave us time to work out, “are we going in the studio or aren’t we?” And unfortunately those would have been two more live shows which would have enabled the diminishing numbers to be done more gently.
As a producer how does it feel to do it this way? Is something lost?
I don’t know that we had any choice but to do it this way. The other choice would be to have suspended the series after Hawaii when we got from 40 to 20 and come back at a later date and done the live shows over a longer period. And we did think about that and in the end I think we made the right decision because we were thinking, “well, we don’t know when we can come back.” At one point we were thinking we could come back in September and then that might be all right. As things changed by the day we thought we might not be back this year and then you’ve lost all the momentum.
The ratings were pretty good, people were engaged, they liked the talent and who’d care if we came back in February/March of next year with the same contestants? These kids have worked really hard and an American Idol deserves to be crowned and then the only way to do it was to fit it into the schedule that we’ve got, so we had to do these rather drastic cuts. It does add to the drama in that it’s like, “wow, okay it’s down to 10 plus the judge’s save.” So in that sense it’s very dramatic and a lot of people were talking about it and engaged with it, whether they liked it or didn’t like it. As a producer I loved the drama, but on the other hand I wished we’d had the natural progression of losing people in a more gentle fashion.
If you had your druthers, what would Idol look like next year? Are you anticipating a hybrid that pulls on these new dramatic elements you’ve been forced into? Or back to business as usual?
We’re starting to think about auditions in a serious way now. We like to be able to plan and be ahead of the game and we just don’t know. Are we going to be able to do auditions with 50 people all together? Maybe not. Maybe only 10 people together. All our big, open calls where you have thousands of people, I guess we’re not going to be able to do that. Obviously we’ll do all the things we usually do: online auditions, scouring YouTube and Instagram to find people. But the most interesting, raw talent walks up to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere and just says, “can I audition?”
For example, Arthur Gunn, the guy from Nepal this year, he turned up at one of our buses in Kansas City. We hadn’t found him, he hadn’t applied, but he turned up because the bus happened to be in his neighborhood and he’s doing really well. He’s in our top 7. And Doug Kiker, the garbage guy with no teeth was a huge hit in one of our early auditions because he’s a sweet guy and a great story… he just turned up at a bus. What I’m concerned about is, yes, of course we can do casting and the usual ways of people applying, but I’m concerned about not losing those nuggets of raw talent.
Over the years that’s where the most interesting people have come from. That’s one of the things preoccupying me at the moment and also how to keep some of these special things from the pandemic version of Idol and not lose them. To some extent it’s striping it back and making it simpler, more raw and back to the early days. I think there’s definitely something to be embraced maybe, but no pretending “hey, we’re still in pandemic mode, so let’s put this bit in.” Whatever the version is starting to look like for next year I don’t want to lose those emotional qualities that we discovered in the stripped-down version this year.
I think back to those shots of thousand of kids waiting to audition in convention centers and arenas and I think, “it’s going to be a long time before we do that again.”
Those days are gone. But we’re even looking now state-by-state at what are the regulations? Because our bus tours go everywhere — last year we went to 23 different locations around the country — and I bet every state has got different guidelines. You can do this in Kansas, but you can’t do it in California. On the other hand, you don’t want to lose sight of the show, the elements of talent and emotion, kids from nowhere getting a chance in life, you don’t want to lose any of that because you’re overwhelmed by logistics. The guys are all looking at that, but I keep standing back and saying, “yes, but is that going to make a great show?”
After the top seven are cut down to five at the beginning of the finale on the East Coast broadcast, voting for the winner will open. Though the results will air live only on the East Coast, all time zones can vote for their favorite — up to 10 times per contestant, per method — here, as well as on the Idol app and by texting the contestant number to 21523; voting closes at approximately 9:15 ET. The season 18 winner will be crowned live on the East Coast at the end of the night.