New ‘American Idol’ Episodes Won’t Truly Be Live, But They’ll Come Close
American Idol returns live on Sunday (April 26) -- kind of. The ABC TV singing competition will reveal its new live look with all contestants, judges, hosts and supporting stars broadcasting remotely from their homes.
Speaking to Billboard, American Idol producers detailed the chain of events that led to a decision to push forward instead of canceling all together. Expect unique staging, but not amateur hour or iPhone-quality recordings. There will even be celebrity guest appearances and performances as the group of 20 gets whittled down to 10, then five and eventually to one American Idol winner.
Audio and video quality is very important to producers, so they worked with local internet companies and the contestants to ensure strong internet signals and premium audio and video looks. The contestants will all perform in front of custom sets (host Ryan Seacrest has an American Idol desk from 2016 that he's restoring for the show) and with a band.
Everything will be filmed live-to-tape, meaning all three judges and non-contestant, on-camera celebs will watch together at the same time, but Sunday's show (and most of the rest of the season) will not be truly live. In fact, the finale will be taped live one day prior, with only the dramatic reveal of a winner being truly "live" on ABC.
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The 20 contestants each have a fair amount of authority to design their own sets, but they're getting plenty of advice and help and a seemingly unlimited budget to make sure their look — and their set's look — is first-rate. Producers stress that it's important to not allow any one person to have a visual advantage because of their know-how or means. Still, as anyone who's been online knows, internet reliability can be complicated by the amount of use in your area or by the weather, so this may not go off without a hitch.
Idol producers say they considered a variety of options upon realizing this season will have to be different because of the coronavirus pandemic. They delayed shutting down production as long as they could and hoped for some studio time until fairly recently.
One idea for an episode was to have a virtual audience made up of Disney characters. Another was to simply postpone the live shows, but ultimately everyone feared that'd result in loss of momentum and be unfair to the contestants. At no point did showrunners think of canceling the season.
In total, there are 45 remote locations ready for the episode that will air on Sunday. The season will last the same amount of time as originally planned, with the process for determining a winner happening exactly the same way as previous seasons. Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry will still banter, and Perry will still spark conversation with her wild outfits ("She’s not just going to sit there in her pajamas," American Idol executive producer Trish Kinane tells Billboard).
One other aspect of the show that is affected by coronavirus is auditions for 2021. They typically begin in April, but with no large gatherings allowed, future hopefuls aren't able to meet their favorite judges. Virtual auditions and online submissions are still taking place, however, with the producers admitting they're not going to think much about Season 19 until they get through a very complicated Season 19.
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