'American Idol' must go on: How the singing competition will crown a winner, remotely

Gary Levin

How do 20 finalists competing to be the next "American Idol" chase the crown remotely, from their homes?  They – along with the ABC show's millions of fans – are about to find out. 

In an extraordinary feat of logistics, this season's final four episodes (beginning Sunday, 8 EDT/PDT) will be taped, rather than live as planned. And each of the finalists, along with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan, host Ryan Seacrest and mentor Bobby Bones, will be seen remotely, from their homes. 

The show's seven-piece live band and three backup singers, who normally accompany the performers on a glitzy soundstage in Los Angeles, will instead record arrangements (separately, from their homes) to be played back while the would-be Idols perform songs to be recorded on Fridays. And instead of an audience of cheering fans, the singers' only feedback will come from judges on a Zoom video chat.

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"In order that the show doesn't become 20 a cappella songs for two hours, we're trying to keep up the production aspect," says Trish Kinane, "Idol" executive producer and president of entertainment programming at Fremantle.  "It will just feel and look so different, so you're not going to go, 'Oh, my God, where is that audience? It will be more intimate. 'American Idol' has always concentrated on the contestants more than the judges, and now it's even more so.  If you strip it all away, that's what the show is about anyway," she says, putting a game face on a difficult situation.

'American Idol' judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan narrowed the field to 21 singers in the show's final taped competition episode, taped in Hawaii, that aired April 5. Now they'll make their picks from home, separately, as the singers perform remotely.

After the 20 singers compete in Sunday's episode, viewer votes will narrow the field to 10 finalists, who will be revealed at the start of the May 3 episode. The process will be repeated over the next two weeks. But viewers will vote among at least three remaining singers during the May 17 finale, and the results will be revealed in a live segment at the end of the show. 

"Idol" is merely the first major competition series to soldier on in the coronavirus age: NBC's "The Voice" is expected to produce remaining finalist competitions remotely beginning May 4, and name a winner two weeks later. Fremantle will attempt a similar (if more daunting) arrangement for NBC's "America's Got Talent," which returns next month with only seven audition shows already taped, without an audience, and more elaborate acts that include pets and acrobats.

Producers scheduled Zoom meetings with each of the 20 "Idol" singers to map out several spots to perform at their homes or quarantine locations for the duration of the season. Supplies were shipped to each: Three of the latest Apple iPhone model to ensure multiple camera angles, a professional microphone and a lighting kit. They'll have Zoom sessions with vocal coaches, normally done side by side, and work out arrangements for songs. 

Was this the only option? No. Producers and ABC discussed several alternatives after the coronavirus shut down much of Hollywood in March, two months after it had traveled to Hawaii to tape the cutdown from 40 to 21 finalists in Hawaii. (One of them, Lauren Mascitti, was eliminated by a viewer vote revealed during a clip show Sunday). 

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"One was, do we stop everything down, press pause and then come back later," says ABC alternative programming chief Rob Mills. "And I think we all agreed (that) to sort of stop and then come back who knows when and say, 'Hey, remember these people?' – that would be really unsatisfying."

They had already loaded in half the set to the studio "Idol" shares with "Dancing with the Stars," and considered allowing the singers to compete – and the judges, including a pregnant Perry, to do their judging – with social distancing and a bare-bones crew. 

Raspy-voiced Arthur Gunn learns he made it into the top contenders' group. ABC's  'American Idol' now prepares to end its season with the singers kept apart.

But "as the virus went on, we came to the realization we were not going to be able to go into the studio at all," Kinane says. "You didn't want to do anything that could put anyone in harm's way, even if we felt 90% safe." 

She admits curious audiences (and even non-"Idol" fans) may tune in to see how the show handles the challenge, much as NBC's "Saturday Night Live" got a ratings boost from its April 11 at-home episode.  "But you don't want it to be a freak show to watch; you want it to be, 'Oh I enjoyed that show, and I'm coming back next week.'"

"You have to be nimble, and just figure out a solution" to honor both viewers and contestants, says Mills, who also scrapped plans for a new season of "The Bachelorette" next month but still hopes to revive it later this summer, even if it means testing and then quarantining the sexy singles. 

"These kids know if you really want this, you will make anything work," he says. "You will improvise, you will figure out how to make these performances great, how to get the country to care and show you are a star, whether it's performing in your bedroom or in front of thousands of people."

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