‘American Idol,’ straight from contestants’ homes to yours

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Joining the ranks of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon,” “Saturday Night Live” and a bevy of other shows that started airing from the hosts’ houses while everyone maintains a safe social distance, “American Idol” producers decided its 18th season must go on. 

On Sunday, April 26, the series aired its first ever at-home episode. Each of the top 20 contestants on the popular singing show performed from their homes, singing on their porches, in their bedrooms and even in their garages. The three judges, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie, as well as host Ryan Seacrest, offered their feedback virtually after each song.

The episode was taped on Friday, removing some of the live performance and live audience aspects that were characteristic of the show. The producers of the series were faced with a daunting challenge, as they shipped each of the 20 contestants sound, lighting and video equipment to record themselves from home. Most performers were joined remotely by the “Idol” backing band members, who were edited into their songs. 

According to an interview with the “Idol” team conducted by USA Today, a lot of planning went into this new format. Producers arranged video calls with each of the contestants to map out several locations in their homes where they could perform for the duration of the season. Each artist then had supplies sent to them, including three brand new iPhones (to record footage from different camera angles), a professional microphone and a personalized lighting kit. Contestants will also continue having Zoom meetings for virtual vocal sessions and to work out arrangements of songs.  

Aside from the more produced, rehearsed nature of these performances (how can we see the way these young hopefuls own a stage or stumble on a lyric if they are in the comfort of their own living rooms?) there is one major difference as a result of the show’s transition. The season has been drastically shortened. The number of contestants will plummet from 20 to 10 in only a week, one of the largest eliminations in the show’s history. There are only four episodes remaining after this week, and the crowning of a new “Idol” winner will look a lot different. The final three singers left on the last episode will participate in a live segment at the end of the show.


A  panoramic photo of the  American Idol Experience  stage at Disney Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.  Photo in the    public domain

A panoramic photo of the American Idol Experience stage at Disney Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World. Photo in the public domain

These changes are understandable, as the level of production and planning that goes into coordinating 20 performers and setting them up with the right equipment is no easy feat. Producers of the show probably don’t see this type of filming as a very sustainable television platform. How many times can viewers watch someone sing in front of their kitchen window before the novelty wears off, after all? 

 “In order that the show doesn’t become 20 a cappella songs for two hours, we’re trying to keep up the production aspect,” said Trish Kinane, “Idol” executive producer and president of entertainment programming at Fremantle. “It will just feel and look so different … 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.” 

This method of production and filming won out over a few other options, including filming in the studio with a bare bones crew or putting the show on halt altogether. Some other live performance shows, including NBC’s “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent” are looking to ABC and “American Idol” for inspiration and will be filming in a similar format in the upcoming months. 

ABC alternative programming chief Rob Mills also works closely with “The Bachelor” franchise, and had to scrap plans for the upcoming season of “The Bachelorette” starring Claire Crawley. The network has plans to revive the show later this summer, when the stay-at-home orders have been loosened, even if it means “testing and quarantining” the contestants, according to USA Today. 

“These kids know if you really want this, you will make anything work,” Mills said. “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.”

One thing is for sure, even with the change in the structure of the show, the talent and performances continue to impress, and the next winner will go down in history as, not only an American idol, but the first one crowned from home. 

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Julia Mancini is the life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.

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