Why the time might be right for the return of 'American Idol'

Photo: InStyle
Photo: InStyle

It feels like just yesterday that a white-clad choir comprising 60 American Idol alumni stood onstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre and bid an emotional farewell to arguably the most game-changing, zeitgeist-shifting talent show in TV history. In fact, it was less than two years ago! But now American Idol is “through to Hollywood” once again. After the canceled Fox series was surprisingly revived by ABC, Idol is back at the Dolby, shooting its famous Hollywood Week episodes — with new judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, but with longtime showrunner/executive producer Trish Kinane and co-executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick (plus original host Ryan Seacrest) still on board.

But are people ready for Idol to come back? As the old saying goes, how can we miss it if it won’t go away? And with the singing-show market already saturated by The Voice (which will ironically unveil its newest cast member, inaugural Idol champion Kelly Clarkson, mere weeks before Idol’s ABC premiere) and Fox’s The Four, is it possible for Idol to recapture its Clarkson-era glory?

Kinane and Wolflick believe that it can. In fact, Kinane thinks the show should have never gone away in the first place. “It’s interesting,” she muses. “The ratings when American Idol went off the air was 2.9 in the demo, and the finale had 13.3 million viewers. And even the average was like, 9, 10, 11 million viewers. That’s not a show that needs to go away, I don’t think! Having said that, I think the two years off has given everyone time to miss it a bit. It’s given us time to just take stock, and also given time for the talent pool to regenerate.”

Kinane and Wolflick have an interesting theory as to why the time is right for Idol’s reboot. Sitting with Yahoo’s Reality Rocks at the Dolby Theatre as young, starry-eyed Hollywood Week hopefuls mill around them, they reflect on the show’s Season 1 debut and what was going on in the country at the time: Idol premiered exactly nine months after 9/11, on June 11, 2002, and it was just the warm, fuzzy entertainment that the still-healing nation needed.

Idol is just such a positive show, and it always has been,” says Kinane. “It’s about kids from nowhere in Middle America. It’s positive, warm, funny, relatable. We want it to be a happy watch.”

“Funny, warm, positive, happy, talent, dreams, journeys — all of those clichés,” Wolflick adds with a chuckle. In fact it’s going to be such a positive show this time around, ABC won’t even air any bad, William Hung-style auditions.

American Idol was one of the last big “appointment television” shows that families and friends gathered to view together, and in these trying and divisive political times, Kinane thinks it could once again serve as a great pop-cultural unifier: “We want people to watch together. Watch with your family. Bring your family back together and get back on the couch.”

So Idol will be the same family-friendly, feel-good show we all know and hopefully still love. “We don’t want to make big changes,” says Kinane (aside from the aforementioned elimination of reject/joke auditioners), “or do gimmicks. American Idol is the original, and it’s the format that works.” But all this warmth and fuzziness doesn’t mean the new judges will be soft the show’s new crop of aspiring singers. While the coaches on The Voice are basically enablers who dole out gold stars and participation trophies to all contestants, and the panel on The Four is vicious enough to make even Simon Cowell blanch, Perry, Richie, and Bryan will be tough but fair — as evidenced by their impressive efforts during Hollywood Week.

While Bryan seems to be the most laid-back of the trio, Richie spends much of his screentime literally up out of his seat, authoritatively giving Group Night contestants Commodores-inspired choreography pointers. (“I love doing this; it’s right up my alley,” he gushes at one point.) He seems likely to be the show’s most popular and lovable judge. “He’s been around a long time, and he has a lot of wisdom. Luke and Katy take the mickey out of him, but he is wise, and he has a lot to offer. He’s very warm, and he really cares,” says Kinane. Still, Richie can be brutally honest: When one group performance unravels into a mess of forgotten lyrics, he describes the effort as “raggedy.”

Perry, however, is the real revelation. She’s sharp and assertive, she doles out specific and actionable advice, and she has zero problem describing one singer’s tendency to sing everything at top volume as being “excruciating to the ear,” lecturing one swelled-headed contender about the difference between confidence and arrogance, or flatly telling another singer with enunciation issues, “Don’t sound like a frog.”

“The judges’ judgments are fair, I think, but pretty honest,’ says Kinane. “They don’t just say, ‘Hey, that was great,’ when it isn’t great. And yet, they’re not mean. … They think it’s not helpful to tell someone they’re great when they’re not. It’s not kind to say, ‘This is your path,’ if they really think it isn’t.”

“They’re taking their job super-seriously to actually find a superstar. The legacy of the show is something that comes with a lot — I mean, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson. They’re very clear about that. They want to find a superstar, genuinely, and they’re so excited about it. To have that passion 24/7 is unbelievable with these three people,” adds Wolflick.

Kinane and Wolflick know that Perry will be the most scrutinized judge, mainly because of her reported whopping $25 million salary. “Actually, I think she was sort of misquoted. She said, ‘Listen, it’s great that a woman gets paid.’ She didn’t say what she got paid, but it was great that a woman got paid — and if you want to talk about it, that’s fine,” Kinane shrugs. But Kinane is confident that Perry will win over the skeptical viewing public. “I think Katy is a very interesting combination of being quite tough, but actually really vulnerable and warm as well. She feels the emotion; she feels a lot of what these kids feel. She had a really rough start [to her career] — she actually had her car repossessed twice, she didn’t have any money, and it was tough for her. So when she hears these stories from the kids, she understands. I think the minute people see her on the show, they’re going to get to know her a bit better, because I’m not sure a lot of people know quite what she’s really like.”

“She’s very accessible, her comedic timing is genius, and she’s not afraid to take the piss out of herself. She just has fun with it, and honestly, we’ve been loving her on the panel. She’s so real, which is refreshing. I think [attitudes about her are] going to change when people watch her, the way that she looks and cares about these kids and really wants to pull the best out of them,” says Wolflick.

Of course, Idol isn’t really about the superstar judges — it’s about the search for a future superstar, for the next Katy Perry. And if the Season 16 contestants aren’t up to snuff, then the Idol reboot will fail. However, Wolflick insists that this season, “There are certain people when you walk onstage, you get that ‘butterfly moment,’ that excitement. Personally, I got it with Philip Phillips and Carrie Underwood back in the day, and I have that again this year.”

But can the next Idol winner really achieve the success of Phillips’s quintuple-million-selling “Home” or Underwood’s seven Grammy wins, when the careers of the last four Idol champs (Candice Glover, Caleb Johnson, Nick Fradiani, and Trent Harmon) have stalled — and even massive rival show The Voice has failed to launch a superstar after a dozen seasons? Though Kinane admits that the landscape has changed dramatically since Idol’s pre-social media, pre-YouTube, pre-Spotify early days, she says, “It’s harder now, but I think it can still be done. In fact, that’s a question that I always ask any of the potential judges we’re talking to: ‘Do you think we can do this anymore? Can we break a superstar?’ And Katy, Lionel, and Luke all said yes.”

Idol has had a better track record than most shows, due to synergistic partnerships with record labels (first Sony/BMG, then Universal, and now Disney) and undeniably catchy coronation singles like Phillips’s “Home” and David Cook’s “Time of My Life.” (“The song has to be hot, and it has to resonate with America,” explains Wolflick.) And now, industry powerhouse Phil McIntyre — manager of Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Iggy Azalea, and DNCE — has signed on as the show’s executive producer. “Phil has been here all week to see who the talent is, to see who they might become as an artist, and to see how to develop them. You need to be involved right now, to start working that out,” says Kinane.

But Wolflick thinks Idol’s real advantage over other talent shows is its “viewer investment — time spent with these people over the season, and really feeling like by the end of the season, when you’re seeing two people on the finale stage, that they’ve been with you for months. I feel like with the word ‘American’ in it, people just connected on a different level, for so many years. They were rooting for these people even after they were off the show, because they said, ‘I voted for this person for 12 weeks. I’ve given part of myself to that person!’ They feel like [the contestants are] their friends. It’s very accessible.”

And so, the search for a new Idol begins again. “We didn’t know what to expect, going back out on the road — no one could have showed up,” admits Wolflick. “But we had 7,000 people, all of whom said, ‘I’ve wanted to try out for this my whole entire life. I was 13 when you went off the air. I’m 15 now. This is what I’ve always wanted since before I was born.’ The excitement was there.”

“We’ve got a lot 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds,” adds Kinane. “A lot of young people who grew up watching the show. We’ve even got one Idol baby who was born on the exact day Idol went on air: June 11, 2002. Like, she’s been waiting her whole life to prepare for it.”

“To prepare for a moment like that,” says Wolflick.

“A moment like this,” laughs Kinane. “Exactly.”

American Idol premieres on ABC, Sunday, March 11.

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