What to expect from the at-home version of ‘American Idol’: ‘We're making history here’

The ratings for music specials like Elton John’s Living Room Concert for America and One World: Together at Home, as well as the recent quarantined edition of Saturday Night Live, have proven that the network television audience will happily accept lo-fi production quality, if it means they’ll have something new to watch while in lockdown. But don’t expect anything amateurish — no shaky vertical video, no wonky Wi-Fi, no imperfect audio — this Sunday, when American Idol begins remotely broadcasting from the judges’ and contestants’ homes.

If the ambitions of longtime American Idol executive producer/showrunner Trish Kinane and executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick are anything to go by, not only will Idol — as the first major TV talent show to proceed during the coronavirus era — make television history, but it could also set a high standard for the look and feel of broadcast productions during the pandemic.

“We're not doing Zoom- or Skype-type situations,” Kinane stresses to Yahoo Entertainment. “We're getting proper recordings. We're trying to just upgrade the sound and pictures all the way along. … We're keeping as true to the heart of American Idol as we can, but we just have different physical circumstances. It's still primarily about the contestants, about their talent, about giving them a chance of a career in the future whether they win or not, and about really good-hearted, talented judges who want to help them.

“We're keeping all of those positive American Idol things,” Kinane continues. (The remote shows will even feature the original blue desk where Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson used to sit, which has now found a safe place in Ryan Seacrest’s living room.) “Nothing really is changing. It's just we're having to do it in very different circumstances.”

So, here’s how it will work. From a whopping 45 different locations across North America — including the homes of the 20 contestants; judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan; host Seacrest; mentor Bobby Bones; and various musicians, backing singers, and crew members — this season's final four competitive episodes will be taped. But they’ll be “live to tape,” to give the series as familiar and immediate a feel as possible. This means no multiple takes, no stops and starts; all contestants are performing without a net, so if they forget their lyrics, miss a cue, or hit a bad note, that’s what viewers will vote on, just as they would in any other live Idol season.

“We're doing this like a proper show — like we're in the studio at CBS,” Kinane says. “We have a director. We have producers. We've got these rather sophisticated systems all got set up. We can see them, they can see us. It's routing through [an engineering room in] Kansas City. And then it's like, ‘Here you go... Cue!’ The contestants are not doing [self-recorded videos] at home and just sending it in.”

Kinane elaborates on how the contestants’ performance process will play out: “They each get three passes, and the second pass is the audio pass. The first pass is one where the artist normally just gets into the groove and settles down a bit. The second pass is usually the best audio pass, because they're in it and they give their best performance. And then the third pass, we're doing that really more for [edited] visuals. But whatever happens with their audio on that second pass, that's the one that is used, because it's exactly the same as if they were on the stage. And if they screw it up, then they screw it up.”

The producers have also taken great pains to standardize the recording setup, so as not to give any unfair advantage to contestants with greater technological savvy or access. “We sent everyone, all the finalists, the same kit of cameras and lighting and everything, so everyone has an equal playing field to shoot their performances with,” says Wolflick. “It's not like someone else has more bells and whistles; everybody has the same equipment across the board.”

“And everybody's getting the same amount of time,” adds Kinane. “American Idol was scrupulous about the standards, because this is a competition [which must adhere to the same strict legal guidelines of any network game show]. So, they've all got the same equipment, plus they have the same amount of time with our directors and producers.”

Contestants will also get virtual rehearsal time with mentor Bones and musical director Kris Pooley. “The band is exactly the same as what we do at CBS, but more difficult because it's remote,” says Kinane. “You've got a vocal coach in one house, a pianist in another house, Kris in another house, me and Megan in different houses. We will work with the contestants in advance, like we would [under normal circumstances], on their song, their arrangement. The arrangement ideas go back and forth between the vocal coaches, Kris Pooley, and us. Then we work with an arrangement that the kid wants, and Kris does the backing track with the band, like he would with the live band. Those that play guitar or piano, they can either be supplemented with Kris Pooley's track, or they can play completely on their own — exactly as they would have been allowed to at CBS Studios. And then the other thing is, we still have the backing singers and the band. It's just they're not physically there.”

Once Perry, Richie, and Bryan watch these performances from their separate living rooms, they will be “addressing the contestants in real time,” providing the enjoyable judge interaction that has always been such a crucial part of Idol. “They can hear and see all of it. It's not all three boxes; we are having a virtual control room where we are,” Wolflick explains. “They're able to interact. They're able to see each other, they're able to hear each other. It's not canned.”

It’s a logistically complex process, obviously, so one might wonder if it just would have been easier for this season to go on hiatus until it was deemed safe to resume normal production. “That was something we considered, but nobody knew when that later date was going to be — it could be October, November, December, or even next year,” says Kinane. “The show is doing well, the ratings are good, the viewers are liking it; if you then come back nine months later or even six months later, it's not the same. You've lost the momentum.”

At one point, producers had hoped to simply shoot the live shows with a socially distanced, minimal crew and without a studio audience, and they’d even toyed with some creative augmented-reality concepts, like having an audience of virtual Disney characters for this season’s Disney Night. “We actually started to get rather excited about that; it would have been mice and lions while the kids sang Disney songs,” Kinane chuckles. “But then it became apparent that we weren't even going to be able to do that. So then our thinking switched fully to: ‘OK, let us now embrace how American Idol does this completely remotely.’”

Kinane acknowledges that the contestants are understandably disappointed to be missing out on some of the quintessential Idol experiences, like special guest mentors (although celebrity participation may still factor in, in some way), a splashy finale, and professional hair and makeup. But she says they’re “really grateful that it's continuing, and they're making the most of the experience of doing it from home… and I think they are embracing the challenges. They’re still having to deal with music, with arrangements, with pressure, with the creative producer, the camera angles. They're still having to do all of that. These kids have already been through Hollywood Week, they've already been to [the top 40 showcase in] Hawaii. They've already performed for the big stages. And now it's pretty impressive that they're doing their own hair and makeup and their own wardrobe — and they look great! I have to say, they look fantastic. They have really pulled out all the stops, as far as looking like stars, with our technology and the way the performances look. I think you're going to be really impressed when you see them.”

“It's actually kind of fascinating,” muses Wolflick. “There was a contestant yesterday who said to Ryan that her performance base is on her balcony — it's a beautiful, spectacular-looking setup. And her comment to Ryan was: ‘I have been practicing to be on American Idol on this balcony since I was 4 years old, and now I'm actually on American Idol, performing on this balcony.’ It was kind of a bizarre, full-circle moment.”

This at-home development is full-circle in a couple other significant ways. When American Idol Season 1 premiered, it was exactly nine months after 9/11, on June 11, 2002, and many television scholars have theorized that it was that timing — escapist family entertainment, when the nation was in turmoil — that contributed to its success. Therefore, Season 18 could provide the feel-good fare that America needs right now in the midst of another crisis. Additionally, at one time the show’s creator, Simon Fuller, had a vision of Idol becoming an interactive online broadcast. So in a way, a virtual, quarantined version of American Idol unexpectedly, poignantly connects the long-running program’s past and future.

“Once again, Idol is at the forefront of technology,” Kinane says proudly. “Ryan Seacrest taught America to [vote by] text, which engaged the viewer, and then we did real-time voting on the East and West Coasts. So even though it's an 18-year-old show, we actually embrace new technology and new ways of doing things. And here it is again. We feel we've got a bit of history to live up to here, which is why we've been taking the quality of the sound and the singing and the recording of this particular remote series so seriously.”

The only concern Kinane seems to have about the show’s technology, really, has to do with the finale, which will still take place as scheduled on May 17. “The interesting thing about that is we're going to have to go live, like proper live, for the results sequence,” she laughs. “So while the [competitive] shows are being recorded, because didn't want to risk a kid's performance or anything with the internet going down, for the finale we have to go live for the results. So pray to the internet gods and to all our wonderful engineers that the endeavor works!”

But, as Wolflick notes, this is going to be must-see TV. “No matter what happens with this season, with our new frontier, this will definitely go down in the history of American Idol as being one of the most memorable moments by far,” she asserts. “I think we're making history here, and it's exciting.”

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