Think You Know Everything About ‘American Idol’? Think Again

What appears to be a simple singing contest is complex behind the scenes.

Chances are most people who tune in to Wednesday night’s “American Idol” finale are familiar with the process behind the show.

After all, it’s just a singing contest, right? Well, as simple as it seems on TV, it’s actually quite complex.

“American Idol” fans are typically diehard, but there’s probably something you don’t know about the show. Like …

     If Britney Spears fired her manager and left her label, technically she could audition for “American Idol.” “The only rule is that they are no longer represented or have a recording contract,” co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe explained.

  • This season the judges saw only 1,200 of the 70,000 who auditioned. Twelve preliminary judges narrowed the field down first.

  • After 32 singers are selected for the semifinals, the producers spread out who they think are the best singers into each of the four groups to give them better chances. “We try to seed them, but it’s hard,” Lythgoe said.

  • When the judges are selecting who will return for the wildcard round, the producers give them the voting results from the semifinals as well as their suggestions, including singers who were eliminated before the final 32. “The judges look at every third and fourth place,” co-executive producer Ken Warwick said. “I show them footage from Pasadena of people I think were overlooked. We will also look at the Web site and see what people are saying.”

  • In the end, however, the producers have no say in who advances from the wildcard round and often find out the judges’ choices live on air. “The judges decide who they want to go through for whatever reason,” Warwick said. “If they don’t have that spark that we think is going to make them an ‘American Idol,’ we can’t interfere with that. I know there’s a perception that the producers are all in there and they’re stirring it up … but the truth of the matter is we don’t.”

  • The judges observed the rehearsals of the 12 singers during wildcard week to determine which eight would perform, but that’s the only week they are allowed to watch any practicing up until the final dress rehearsal. “The kids are learning songs they’ve never learned before,” Warwick explained. “Sometimes they sing them badly for the first three or four days, or there are notes they can’t reach and they just tweak the key or something, so if the judges were there and seeing all of the rough sides of it, it wouldn’t be fair.”

  • Once in the finals, contestants pick their songs for the next week on Thursdays, but they’re given approximately 20 CDs of songs from the genre a week prior to that. “Sometimes it’s even 10 days or two weeks before, so that they can be making their choices over that two-week period,” Warwick said.

  • Singers are asked to pick four or five songs, since producers are often unable to clear the contestants’ first choices for television. The Beatles, Van Morrison and Shania Twain are among the artists who never clear their songs. Producers typically spend between $1,000 and $6,000 to clear a song.

  • Contestants are allowed to rehearse more than one song with vocal coach Debra Byrd to help make their final decision (see “The Hardest Part Of ‘American Idol’? Picking The Songs” ). “They are all given exactly the same time, though,” Warwick said. “We say, for instance, ‘You’ve got an hour to pick and arrange this song.’ Sometimes we arrange two songs for them and in the last 10 minutes we say, ‘Which one do you want to do?’ ”

  • If a singer decides on Friday they picked the wrong song, he or she isn’t out of luck. “We do our best to accommodate them if they’re really, really unhappy,” Warwick said.

  • Finalists each have the same amount of time to spend with the vocal coach on Friday, sometimes only 45 minutes.

  • The singers go shopping with stylists Miles and Kristen Siggins (see “Fashion Faux Pas Can Cost ‘American Idol’ Contestants, Stylists Say” ) on Friday afternoons with a $450 budget, although they are free to chip in their own money for bigger purchases.

  • The commercials with the contestants are shot each week on Sundays (see “Banana Boys And Cheese: What’s Up With Those ‘American Idol’ Promo Spots?” ), while Mondays are reserved for blocking rehearsals on the “American Idol” stage (which is located at CBS’ studios, not FOX’s). Dress rehearsals are held every Tuesday afternoon.

  • About 700 people pile into the studio for the filming of each episode, a portion of whom are representatives for the show’s sponsors. “The producers fight the network to not have these suits there because they’re not good audiences,” Warwick said. “We want audiences who seriously support the kids from their hometown, so there is always portions of the audience that are kept aside for the contestants and their followers, because we want that passion.”

  • The producers decide the order of the finalists each week and try to choose upbeat songs to go first and last. They also like to alternate boy/girl when possible.

  • When Ryan Seacrest recaps the performances each Tuesday, the clips shown are actually from the dress rehearsals to make it easier on the show editors.

  • It might sound like it, but the contestants are never interviewed specifically for the reflective commentaries that go along with what have become known as the farewell packages. “They actually take those [comments] from other interviews that we’ve done,” La Toya London explained. “They piece it all together from stuff all season. I think it’s wonderful. I really liked my package.”

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