Imagine filming a summer action blockbuster in your basement. Or trying to pull off a heavyweight boxing match with the fighters in two different states. That’s basically the challenge facing the team behind American Idol as the show prepares to switch from pre-taped segments to live shows on April 26. Of course, they can’t actually go live because of social distancing rules imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so producers have had to get very, very creative this time around to keep season 18 afloat amid the most challenging conditions in show history.
“There was never a conversation about completely scrapping this season with ABC,” Trish Kinane, Idol‘s showrunner/executive producer and president of entertainment at Fremantle tells Billboard. Noting that ABC has been very pleased with the ratings for the show so far this year — which she says are up from the first two cycles on the network — Kinane says that everyone involved was determined to make the show go on. In fact, at one point they even considered doing at least one episode with an augmented reality audience made up of digital Disney characters.
“The care of our contestants, without getting too soppy about it, is ingrained in all of us,” she says. “It would not have been okay to pat the singers on the back for making it through Hollywood Week, the showcase and auditions and then just call it all off… We felt we needed to bring it to a conclusion.” To be sure, it will not be a cheap prospect to set up what amounts to mini studios in 20 contestant’s homes, as well as four judges, host Ryan Seacrest and connections for dozens of producers and show executives.
The logistics are insane and the vibe will definitely be different, but Kinane promises that the results will be “American Idol as you know it.” Except, you know, totally different. Billboard spoke to Kinane and two other Idol producers to find out what viewers can expect.
Run me through the process of shutting down production last month. When did you decide and what needed to happen?
Kinane: It changed by the minute. We were in the process of finishing the editing of our Hollywood week and showcase green mile from Hawaii and then we would have gone into our studio. The contestants were all in L.A. rehearsing with vocal coaches and pretty much within a week of the contestants arriving and the set not fully loaded into the studio things started to change and get much more serious and stay-at-home orders started to be put in place, but they weren’t clear at that point… We were hanging on until the last minute to see if, “can we still get into the studio? Can we do it without an audience?”
We’d gone quite a long way down the road of some rather exciting ideas about virtual AR technology, to have a sort of augmented reality virtual audience. And for our Disney Night show we were looking at having an audience full of Disney characters. It would have been fun. First of all it was no audience, but we would have still been carrying on. Then it got worse and worse… then it became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to get into the studio or load the set in safely. We sent the kids home because travel was going to be affected and they needed to be with their families. We were still thinking maybe we can do some shows… either postpone it for a couple of weeks and we’d started editing these two American Idol: This is Me shows to get to know your top 20 contestants better.
But also we wanted to add new material so they weren’t just clip shows. So we were doing virtual interviews and looking for unseen performances from auditions to buy ourselves a couple weeks more time. Then we were thinking maybe we could do some remotely and and get into the studio for some. I think even as recently as 10 days ago we were thinking that might happen, then it became apparent that that was just not going to happen. The decision then was, “do you postpone the show the showcase Green Mile episodes, which is a natural break?” And then pick it up for the live later in the year… but with conversations with ABC we decided that we owed it to these kids to carry one. Because who knows if we would be able to pick it up later in the year, and if we did when would it be and would people care if it was in November or something? It would be so far away from the momentum and the ratings are good… we’ve built up a good momentum for this season. With all that thinking going on, we thought, “no, give this a go, let’s finish this season, let’s crown the next American Idol.”
Did Idol have a break glass option ready in case of something like this (earthquake, fire, etc.)?
Kinane: I think the answer is no.
Megan Michaels Wolflick (Idol executive producer) — Going back to something that happened years ago when a piece of the set had fallen between dress rehearsal and the show, “what’s going to happen? Is half the power going to be out?” It was scramble, scramble, but then by five o’clock live it was back and we were good. So we’ve had a couple little scares, but nothing that we haven’t been able to continue on from. But like Trish said, the answer is no. The whole process has been fascinating, because back when we were delivering our Hollywood week shows we’d have our mix reviews when we would go in and see the final show and we usually go to a place in Hollywood to do that and quickly it became apparent that we can go there, but now we have to sit six feet apart. Now we can’t go in the building, but we’re watching it at home. Now we’re doing virtual mixes. It’s been fascinating how things have pivoted so quickly, but everyone has rebounded and found solutions immediately, which is a testament to the era we’re in and everyone wants to make it work.
What were the logistics of sending everyone home and were the unforeseen costs manageable?
Kinane: In circumstances like this you don’t think about the costs, you just do what you need to do. Our travel guys were just scrambling to book flights and make sure these guys got home, because some of them are 15 and we’re their virtual family the minute they come to L.A. And it’s not just practically, but psychologically as well. They were looking forward to the bigs studio and the experience and that’s partly why, again, we didn’t want all fo that to go away. We didn’t want to deny them the chance of having that experience. Goodness knows the budget is still in a huge state of flux, but we’re doing what we need to do.
What’s the hardest part for your team in terms of the connection to the singers and telling their stories? Storytelling is such a huge part of the show and when you don’t have the singers physically in front of you crying tears of joy or sadness it must be exponentially harder.
Kinane: The storytelling were the earlier part [of the season]. The studio part is performance-led, it’s about the quality of singing, it’s about the talent and it’s about America expressing how they feel about these people from the months when they’ve watched them before. The story packages on the live shows are not that huge. We’re still doing them, of course. And Dan, you have crews and producers working at the moment re-crafting how they’re going got tell their stories in quarantine?
Dan Martin (Idol co-executive producer): It’s a fascinating process, whereas before the producers could use a crew to help capture the stories, now they’re working directly with the kids to tell their own stories with their iPhones at home.
One thing that’s become a hallmark of broadcasting during the COVID-19 era is the struggles late night shows have had with producing good audio for interviews and performances over Zoom or other apps. How will you address that technical issue and how do you make sure their performances aren’t graded on a curve because the connection is not good?
Kinane: Obviously fairness is hugely important on this show because it’s a competition. So all the contestants have to be treated absolutely equally. Dan and all the production team are working really hard with Verizon and all the providers around the country to make sure that everyone has the same internet speed and upload and download speeds are the same.
Martin: We’ve had to help some people get routers just to make sure all the contestants are on the same level and it’s fair for everyone.
Wolflick: Let’s say someone lives in an apartment building and everyone in that building is streaming — I read on Drudge Report that said people are averaging 12 hours a day streaming — so it’s been an uphill battle knowing everyone in their surrounding areas is streaming. We’ve had to make some creative solutions to make it happen because we have people in the middle of nowhere and we have people in New York City.
Kinane: We’ve very conscious that this is a music show and it’s gotta be good. We’re still having a band, we’re still having backing singers… the vocal coaching has continued, albeit in a very different way. So you’ve got the contestant in their home on Zoom, the pianist in their home and the vocal coach in their home on a Zoom, all doing virtual vocal coaching sessions. And then Megan and I will come in for an executive run through on a different Zoom when they’ve got something to show us. And Chris and the band are recording tracks and mixing them and sending them to the contestants. We’ve been careful to try and make this as high-quality as possible, especially the sound. So I hope the sound on this is gonna be really great, even though it’s remotely. It’s not just sitting at home with your iPhone singing.
Describe to me what people are going to see when the show comes back on April 26. What will it look like? Will we recognize it as Idol?
Kinane: The elements are all going to be the American Idol you know. There’s going to be Ryan linking from his home… we’re in 25 different locations with the contestants and Ryan and the judges and God knows how many producers. I think there are like 45 different remote locations at play. It will be Ryan introducing the judges, the judges messing around as they do, stand by for some amazing outfit from Katy Perry. She’s not just going to sit there in her pajamas. Bobby [Bones] from Nashville and then the 20 contestants remotely from their homes… then the 20 will become 10, so it breathes a little bit where we will have the story packages. But the story packages will be a little different: where they are, how they’re coping… we have no option but to embrace where we are and that’s the story of American Idol this season.
It’s all the familiar elements, voting… viewers will still vote, there will still be results of the vote next week and we still have celebrity guests along the way. The big challenge is to do the finale with the same elements that we usually have. Most of this is being taped as-live… “hey Katy, what are you wearing? Now let’s have Gil, Gil what are you singing?” So we’re pre-recording all of that in case the internet goes down or in case something technological happens, so it’s recorded as live. For the finale we’re going to record most of the show as-live the day before, but we have to go live-live-live for the result because this is your next American Idol and viewers will hav been voting throughout the show. So that part will be very exciting and challenging and pray for the internet.
Will it be a shorter season than intended or the same amount of episodes?
Kinane: It’s actually the same.
We will not actually be watching them sing live, then, for the most part it will be pre-taped?
Kinane: Yes, for the most part it will be as-live. It’s not live-live, but we will have taped it the day before. But with the judges we’ll be watching them live… when I say “live,” they’ll be watching the thing they taped the day before and they will be seeing it there and then and commenting there and then. The putting together of it is as-live, so not like we’re recording everybody separately. The three judges and the contestant and Ryan will all be able to see each other, talk to each other and comment on the performances.
How are the contestants adapting? You talked about some being as young as 15. How are they handling not being on the show they always dreamed of being on?
Kinane: I think they’ve all embraced it… I think there’s a little bit of sadness that they’re not all going to get the professional makeup and hairdressing and the glam bits that they all love, but I think they’ve all adapted pretty well and they’re finding it quite exciting. They’d certainly rather it carry on than it didn’t.
Wolflick: 100 percent. “Okay send us pictures, what do you have in your closet, send us options, order some makeup from Amazon.” It’s really fun and they have ideas about how they want to dress their area, maybe a little art project behind them. It’s kind of fascinating too because they grew up documenting their life via phone or social media, so they get it, so that that helps a lot. We have a great group of artists this year and they each have a vision. They’ve been working really hard they all want to put on a great show.
Kinane: That’s true, everyone uses their iPhone, in fact many of our audition submission were on iPhone, so it’s a form that everyone’s familiar with, so that I think has made has made it slightly easier. It’s not about completely teaching them how to frame a shot. Also, because Fremantle is such a company of scale, we’ve been looking at who people are solving these problems in Italy and Denmark… because we do all these big entertainment shows we’re able to share information, and adapt pretty quickly to this.
How disruptive do you think this will be to the Idol process? Certainly there will be some bumps along the way, no?
Kinane: I think we’re going to be able to pull off a really good show with all of the limitations we have. It not going be the same as Idol [in the studio], with an audience of 800 people screaming and flashing lights. But all those key elements of Idol: quality performances, being able to see the talent, great judges, American voting… Ryan Seacrest is rather enjoying all this I think. I was talking to Ryan on the phone and saying we sort of need a home base because it’s going to be people all over the country and different shots, because the contestants have all got different backgrounds. Ryan is home for this show and he’s the center for bringing it all back and talking to the judges. And in the conversation I suddenly remembered that after season 15 we sent Ryan, because he wanted it, an American Idol desk and logo and he’d had it in his garage for four years, so it’s coming out of his garage.
With the judges not in the room to face the contestants in person, how do you get that same dramatic feel — the music cues, the lights — during eliminations?
Wolflick: I think with the music and the drama and obviously Ryan is amazing at reliving the results and milking that moment. So that will all still be there. We won’t have stage lighting, but the drama and the emotions and the harsh eliminations will all be there. It will be a bit different, but the impact will be the same.
Kinane: We’ll still see the contestants — a bit like the Oscars, where they have those split-screen shots — because we’re able to have them all there live in the moment you’ll still be able to get that. It’s not faking shots at different times with different people. All of that is live in the moment even though not live on air.
You’ve started auditions already, but what is the plan if social distancing continues through next year?
Kinane: We would like to get past May the 17 before we start thinking about that in any great depth. We always start auditions again in April, so this is no different. We will have to adapt. One element of our audition process is online auditions, so obviously if this carries on we won’t be able to have huge gatherings. But what is a huge gathering? It depends on what the guidance and social distances are and what the rules are.