‘American Idol’ EP Gives Peek Behind Curtain of Unprecedented Remote Shows

American Idol 2020
ABC/Gavin Bond

The coronavirus isn’t stopping the music on American Idol with added intrigue going into the next phase of this season’s singing competition. The Top 20 will perform for votes not on a stage in front of a live audience, but rather from their homes.

Ryan Seacrest will guide the ship through these uncharted waters using the show’s original desk going back to 2002. The unprecedented broadcast is emanating from 25 locations as judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie and in-house mentor Bobby Bones join the host.

We connected with Megan Michaels Wolflick, executive producer, to delve further into how the at-home shows have come together and become a true labor of love.

What went on in the decision-making process to move forward in this format?

Megan Michaels Wolflick: We were kind of at a crossroads about five weeks ago when we had our contestants out for our physical live shows in L.A. The news came fast and furious where we had to decide then and there if we continue on or shut down. We had to quickly send our contestants home back to their family in case there was some sort of travel ban. We made a plan to forge ahead in this new frontier in making these shows remote. Of course, going into it, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We didn’t know what technology we’re going to use or how we would make this work. Slowly but surely we made a plan and moved ahead. It has been the most interesting, exhausting, exciting five weeks I think we’ve ever had on the show.

American Idol

(ABC/Scott Patrick Green)

Was there ever serious discussion about postponing the shows until later in the year?

With our partners at ABC, we laid out our options. We did pros and cons in each bucket, but the thing is we have such momentum and buzz around this crop of finalists that we had. We felt like we couldn’t let them down and stop the momentum. We wanted to crown the next American Idol because these kids came here for a competition. We didn’t want to let them down.

What has it been like working with the contestants remotely compared to the traditional way?

Each contestant has received the same kit of equipment. The same lighting, the same cameras, the same tripods, the same everything. We’ve been working with them, whether it’s vocal coaches or creative producers. We’ve been working with them via Zoom, via Skype to make sure their performances were pretty incredible. It has been a fascinating process working with them from afar. It does mirror the process of our stage shows as far as the vocal coaching, sending pictures of what they’re going to wear, pictures of hair and makeup … The band will also be in their individual homes. They’ve recorded tracks for the contestants to sing along, but it’s really Kris Pooley and the American Idol band. They’re working with their arrangements, like if someone wants to have a more Western feel or have a steel guitar or something else. It’s the home version of it, but it is eerily similar to what we do normally.

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When the judges are looking at the talent, one of the things they look for is stage presence and how they’ll connect to a live audience. How do you feel their preparation has changed for this kind of setting where the judges will accurately be able to give them the constructive criticism?

The nice part is they are really able to focus on their voice and their performance. They have seen these performers in front of giant crowds like the Aulani Resort in February and on the Hollywood stage prior to that. So they’ve seen how they can work a giant stage. In this format, they’re really able to concentrate on the performance, analyze if they’ve been upping their game, song choice, if they’re working the room. It’s different but very similar. The nice part is the judges are able to see the contestants. The contestants are able to see the judges. Ryan is able to see everyone. There is the same interaction. Some people were saying we’re having the contestants upload their performances on some sort of drive. No, we are watching it in real time. We are having the proper camera block, proper dress rehearsal. We’re having a proper performance recording. It does mirror what we’re doing. I have to say the quality of the video and audio is quite astonishing. We’re not going live aside from the finale with the final results. The judges are interacting with the contestants after they perform. There is that back-and-forth.

How have the judges been to work with in this unique process?

I have to say the excitement and feedback we’ve received from them has been incredible. They have all texted and called to say how excited they are, how amazing it is, how much they enjoyed watching the performances. They’re going to give real critiques. This is not a fluff piece. They might not always agree with each other. They might not always be on the same page. Another part of this whole process is when viewers are watching, America is voting. I don’t think there has been anything really out there that has this competition element and interactivity with shows right now. In this two-hour show there will be 20 American Idol-worthy performances. People expect a certain quality and production value. Given our restrictions, I’m just very proud of the product.

I’ve found when you watch these talk shows and musical specials, it provides a more intimate setting. It almost makes you feel more relatable to the people you’re watching.

I agree with that point. I think people in this society we’re living in now, people like that glimpse. Like, “Where is Luke Bryan right now? Oh, he is in his house?” Even with the contestants. There is one girl who is performing from her balcony overlooking a lake. Another girl is in her garage. There is this fascinating gamut of these intimate moments. Of course, Ryan Seacrest has the original American Idol desk that was in his garage and now in his home. So it really is American Idol at home from Ryan Seacrest’s house.

Were there technical elements in presentation that you were inspired by from other shows that have aired? Did seeing them make you more confident in what you were producing?

It’s interesting as we were pivoting and reformatting our ideas even before the decision was made that these shows were going to happen, I think we’ve been an island in deciding what we wanted to do. We have these 5 o’clock tech calls every night where we have 30 people from audio, tech, etc. It’s really fascinating where we have 20 contestants, judges, Ryan and Bobby. So we had to test the internet, the internet speed, the upload speed. There were so many little things that had to go into this. I think we were in a tunnel trying to make the best product we could make.

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What can you tell us about the final weeks to come? Will we be seeing those duets on the finale with contestants paired with popular artists like in the past?

It would not be Idol without surprises. We definitely have some special celebrity guests. We have a couple of twists in the format. We have these four from home episodes coming up and have to make all of them interesting. We’ve always been about surprises, especially with the finale and those duets because I think people have come to love those so much. We had some ideas before we went remote, and a lot of those ideas are transferring in a different format. Everyone has been so up for it and positive too. People want to jump in and do what they can. It’s pretty amazing.

I think for a lot of people music is such a great healer and escape. This show in many ways is happening at the right time. What does it mean to be a part of it?

American Idol debuted on the heels of 9/11 at a time where the country needed hope. You say music being a healer, I think this time it mirrors that as well. The feedback I’ve received over the years across the country has been this is the one show I can watch with my family. Now people are at home, so I hope it takes us back to that moment from 2002 where families are being brought together. To watch the show together, interact and vote. My son is seven and into the show now. We were watching a performance from a rough cut the other night. He wanted to vote. I told him he could starting on Sunday. He was so excited to vote. The idea of bringing that interactivity to the next generation and the investment. It’s huge. People may say, “These contestants aren’t performing on the big stage. How unfortunate.” But they’ve been so excited to be a part of American Idol. Regardless of what happens, this season will go down in history.

American Idol, Sundays, 8/7c, ABC