BAFTA Los Angeles Board Member Phil Ashcroft moderated a one-on-one discussion with Lythgoe at the recent Digital Hollywood Spring event in Marina del Ray. They talked about "American Idol" being broadcasted to over 100 nations outside of the United States, making it a cornerstone of network TV. “It was the interactivity of the program that made it so successful in the first place, and getting the public to phone in and vote,” says Lythgoe. “When Simon Fuller came up with the idea of Idol, he didn’t think, ‘How are we going to audition 20,000 people in two days?’ He left that up to us. Damn it.” For “Pop Idol,” UK fans actually paid to vote for their favorite contestants, but for “American Idol,” Fox has to pay for the telephone calls. Season seven of “American Idol” received a guineas certificate for 136 million telephone calls on the finale, a whopping number that even Fox executives didn’t see coming. “It was quite remarkable that that many telephone calls came in within a two-hour window [for the finale],” says Lythgoe. “We realized the show needed that interactivity to work. It’s always been clear to us that family viewing is certainly the way to go with television formats with a proliferation of screens around the home. To be able to bring them back together in one area to share that common experience is the social glue, as we tend to call it. It’s fantastic. Then what we found out very early on with ‘Idol’ is that it wasn’t just a family unit [watching] it, it was the neighbors and the local communities.
“’Idol’ was water-cooler television,” Lythgoe continues. “You wanted to know what was going on the next day. You couldn’t DVR it because your friends would tell you who got kicked off the program. It was one of those things you had to watch. And that was very important for us.” The show’s creators now want more interaction with viewers beyond the phone calls for votes. This season, “Idol” fans have watched 90 million short-form videos during the show on different platforms. The creators have also set up interactive questions using hash tags in which home viewers can immediately respond to questions like “Do you agree with Nicki Minaj?” and a poll count will immediately appear on the screen with their answers.
When it came to branding “American Idol” during its conception, the creators entertained the idea of having advertisers back the show. Coca-Cola paid for the show’s first season when Fox ran out of development money, but Pepsi turned down the chance to become a sponsor. Today, “American Idol” is certainly raking in the numbers, as advertisers have spent 18.4 billion dollars in the third quarter of last year. “People have different meetings for integration [of advertising with the program],” says Lythgoe. “For me, it’s a smooth organic process. You want to sit back and enjoy the entertainment. You don’t want to have a product forced on you. So we just have to be very careful.”
The big news in broadcasting today involves emerging platforms and redefining international immigration. “It’s an exciting world,” Lythgoe enthuses. “Formats nowadays are so global and they have developed so quickly. ‘America’s Got Talent’ is all over the world; ‘The X Factor’ is all over the world; ‘Idol’ is all over the world; ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ is over in China and Afghanistan. We must not [only] think [of] America and the UK. We really do have to think globally and [about] how our content can be taken and molded for these other countries… I think [mixing that] with this digital age that we’re in, the world is your oyster.”
Photo above: BAFTA Los Angeles Board Member Phil Ashcroft and Producer Nigel Lythgoe
Photo credit: Dyana Carmella