What we can learn from American Idol

I have a confession to make. I watch reality television. Specifically, I watch survivor and American Idol. One has been teaching me how to get ready for a post-pandemic world for 20 years, the other on how great editing moves a story along. Both are brilliant in their own way. Both make my kids wonder if their dad is prepubescent.

Survivor was filmed and edited long before the current pandemic so the quality is still what you’d expect. Although I think being stranded on a tropical island right now sounds pretty great. American Idol started in the pre-pandemic world but after all the auditions and Hawaii performances to get down to the top 20 singers, they needed to go live and this is where they are really really excelling compared to every other “live from home” show on television.

For those not watching it right now you should at least take in one episode or some clips. The top 20 singers now need to perform from their homes across the country — a logistical nightmare for a show that used to just bring all the contestants to one place and play to a live crowd. There the production is under control, the sound and lights are on point and the only focus for the singers is to make sure they know their song.

Not your dad’s American Idol

Being in self-isolation means that each contestant must now sing from their homes from across the US and Canada. If you’ve watched any talk show on television these days you can start to understand why this could have been a disaster. It seems as though there is no concern for microphone placement or lighting or even high speed internet. Take a look at any Tonight Show clip and you’ll quickly see how hard it is to make something that doesn’t sound tinny or even have a stuttering video feed. There doesn’t seem to be a distinction between the quality of video and audio between late night television and our own Zoom meetings. Not comforting if you are the producers of American Idol.

They need to be able to ensure the production quality is as high as it would be on a stage somewhere in Los Angeles. So they shipped the right lights, the right microphones and the right cameras to each of the contestants homes with instructions on how to set it all up. We don’t have to go to that extreme for our video calls but I would expect producers of daily shows to ensure this kind of quality from the hosts home. The down home feeling of “we’re all in the same boat” is getting very very tired. Get Jimmy Fallon a mic and a high speed internet connection would ya?

I think running a singing competition from people’s homes during a pandemic is one of, if not THE, hardest thing for a reality show to accomplish. The focus is on the sound and they have nailed it. The editing is on point for sure. The performances are performed live with the American Idol band being fed in from their homes and recorded for playback during the show. This ensures that there is some authenticity in a live performance however also allows the song to sound as it should. We’ve all learned we shouldn’t do live demos over a strained system. The hosts are live, the feedback is live and there is nary a stuttering video frame or audio drop out anywhere.

Arthur Gunn performing from home

This is the kind of production you’d expect from a show like American Idol. It also sets the bar for the rest of the broadcast from home crew. It can be done but putting the effort into focusing on the right areas: Sound and lighting and a quality camera. Today a right light, a blue mic and an iPhone can do wonders. Instead of flying the guests to a studio, ship them the right equipment, controlled by the television production company, so that the quality is what we expect from a broadcast company, not from a family Zoom call.

The American Idol editing crew has always been on point — just like Survivor. The shows end up being plot driven as we watch the contestants rise from humble roots and tell their backstories. They are exceptionally well done and help us build an affinity towards them. Who doesn’t like to see the subway busker get plucked from destitution to become the next great performing artist? Now we get to see them performing in their living rooms or garages with their families behind a closed door ready to celebrate with them at the end of their song.

The pandemic has also forced the show to be more concentrated and focused. It is no longer the drawn out, 6 month process of eliminating one contestant at a time. The show went from top 20 to top 10 to top 7 in 2 episodes. The finale will be 4 weeks after the top 20 was determined. It is being broadcast once per week and voting only happens for 12 hours after the live performances. Efficiency is the new normal.

American Idol really pioneered the mass adoption of the interactive television. They’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve for just about as long as Survivor has and the rethink to accommodate home performances may change all shows going forward.