American Idol was one of the most high-profile entertainment shows that was shutdown by the COVID-19 pandemic.
ABC and Fremantle have spent the last few weeks working out how to proceed with the format’s live shows, going through dozens of scenarios, including one that would see the audience replaced by virtual Disney characters.
The Disney-owned network and the RTL-backed producer have now figured out a plan – scheduling four more episodes to whittle the final 20 contestants down to find a winner.
The show, hosted by Ryan Seacrest with judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie as well as mentor Bobby Bones, returns with a two-hour episode on Sunday April 26. It is produced by Fremantle in association with Industrial Media’s 19 Entertainment.
ABC’s SVP, Alternative Series, Specials & Late-Night Programming Rob Mills told Deadline that there had been an idea to “put a pin” in the show until the pandemic was over but that felt “unsatisfying”. “We knew we wanted to get some kind of results this season. You started seeing some of the things that artists and musicians were doing on Instagram and Facebook, even some of the stuff on TV, we realised there was a way of doing something different, but could also feel innovative, that’s when the producers set about doing these shows that you’ll see over the next couple of weeks.”
The contestants will have three episodes and the finale to impress the judges, who are also filming remotely in their homes.
American Idol showrunner Trish Kinane, who is also President of Entertainment Programming for producer FremantleMedia North America, told Deadline, “These kids have given up a lot to do these auditions and Hollywood week, it’s only fair to them to keep it going and crown the next American Idol. You also don’t have to win to have a successful career; Jennifer Hudson came seventh.”
Kinane and her team of around 45 people started putting together a plan to film the contestants in their own homes, including sending each of them lighting equipment, wardrobe and the latest iPhones so that they can film it themselves.
“These are kids who are really used to iPhone technology, they are really familiar with it and use it every day. In the end, we decided rather than send them some complicated camera that you really need a camera operator to use, we would go with the the technology that they’re familiar with. These top of the range iPhones are amazing. It wouldn’t surprise me if we were using iPhones in the studio in the future,” she said.
Mills added that ABC was working hand-in-hand with Apple. “We are blessed to live in a day and age where we have technology, even if this had happened five years ago, I don’t know if it would be possible. There is a real can-do spirit here that is exciting and exhausting, it’s been fun to figure it out.”
The band have been recording tracks remotely with backing singers adding in their parts, the producers have been ensuring that everyone’s internet is up to speed and the contestants have been figuring out where they will film themselves, whether that is on a makeshift stage in the garage or in front a lake, depending on where they live.
Mills said that the fact that there are now only four episodes left means that it’s become even more “cutthroat” than ever and there is “no room for error”. “You know someone is a superstar if they’re performing in their closet or on a giant stage and the talent that we have this season is good enough that the viewers are going to feel that way about them too,” he said. “They’ve really got one shot. They’ve got three performances [before the finale] to show that they are the American Idol. You’re going to see people leaving it all out on the floor. The show must go on.”
One of the challenges for the producers was figuring out where they were going to anchor the show. Kinane said that fortuitously they had given Seacrest his own American Idol desk as a present after the show came to an end on Fox. “We need a home base to come back to. You don’t want it to be chaotic. Ryan is home base, everything goes through him for the live shows. He has an American Idol desk and neon logo in his garage. It’s now unpacked and the middle of his house, so Ryan is going to behind an American Idol desk to host the show. It’s been packed up for three and a half years but now it’s moment has come.”