Reality Dish Exclusive Interview: Ken Warwick, Executive Producer of American Idol

A few weeks back, executive producer of American Idol, Ken Warick, took part in a conference call interview with select members of the media including myself. American Idol will return for its 8th season on Tuesday, January 13 and will continue to air on both Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. Eastern time for most weeks. Here are the highlights of the interview…

What are you looking to address with the return of the wild card selections?

Ken Warwick: Well a number of reasons. One, obviously wherever we can, we want to change things up a little bit and we felt that in doing the 12 and 12, that by the time we got down to like the final eight, we’d been living with these kids for like eight weeks already and you know if any of them didn’t have you know fantastic characters it got a bit boring. So we’ve gone slightly – we’ve changed it slightly back to the way we used to have it in that there will be now be a top 36 that go forward from Hollywood, that will be three shows of 12, all different 12, a different 12 each week. And then the viewers at home will put the top three through from those three weeks, which gives us nine, and we need a top 12. So then we’re having a wild card show, where the – where three of the kids will be the fourth highest – fourth highest vote. So from each week, you’ll get the top boy, the top girl and the next highest vote through. And then when we get to the wild card show, the fourth from those three shows will go through and then the judges can add to it, anybody they like that they thought maybe they knew was better and was just off form. Maybe they picked the wrong song. Whatever they – whatever reason they choose, they can make that fourth show up to probably about nine or 10 people, I haven’t quite decided yet. And then, they will decide who the final three will be. Make sense?

What have this year’s auditioners learned from past seasons?

KW: What have this year’s auditioners – well, the thing that always bothers me is that because they know the shows so well now, and it’s been on – it’s been on the air for nearly eight years, they are a lot more savvy than they used to be. So a little of the naiveté, especially in the big cities, has gone. They are very camera savvy, they know exactly what to say and what to do to get on either the good side of the judges, or the bad side. And I tried to avoid that a little bit. If there’s anybody that you know plays the game, rather than is genuine, I tend to actually shy away from a little bit. You know, it’s not something that the judges like to see. It’s usually pretty obvious; they’re not very good at it. But basically the fact that – as in with any TV show when it’s been on as long as we have, that they are totally savvy about where the cameras are and what to say and what to do to maybe get them, you know noticed. So we’re just sort of – we have to be a little bit more careful with the people pick as they’re – you know they come in here deliberately to be (stupid) deliberately to send us up and we’re not interested, you know we send them packing.

With Nigel gone, how have the responsibilities shifted for you guys. Like is somebody taking more . . .

KW: Well, don’t forget, Rodney, that Nigel wasn’t there at the very beginning. I made the very first series in England on my own. So he wasn’t there then. So the truth of the matter is, all its done is it’s doubled my work load, it’s not a question of responsibility. I was always the – I was probably the quieter of the two …I’m quite prepared to believe that, but the truth of the matter is, its no huge different workload – well, that’s a lie. The workload is bigger obviously, but the responsibility and the stress, it’s just the same as it’s always been to tell you the truth.

With fewer weeks for tryout and a second week for Hollywood week, is there a different – is there a change in tone for American Idol this year? Some of the commercials make it look like it’s a inspirational thing rather than laughing at the bad auditioners.

KW: No, the thing is Roger, that I have to give a cross section of the people that turn up. You know we can be criticized for saying oh, that person was terrible and you put me in front of the judges and all the rest of it, but the truth of the matter is, if I – if I sort of set up this incredible (sip) system where all the bad ones never got seen, I’d have a pretty boring show in my hands, and it wouldn’t be honest. The fact of the matter is is that its probably percentage wise, just the same amounts (happers) have always have done, its just that occasionally – its only occasionally where someone’s really, really great then that they’re in – even if they don’t go any further than Hollywood. So yes, in many respects – and again, I have to say, this depends on where we are in the country, in many respects there are maybe a couple less bad ones. But there are places that we went to – you know to Puerto Rico and the majority of them weren’t very good at all. So it’s going to be – I’m afraid that show, for instance, is going to be the same as it’s always been.

You know, so its – the truth of the matter is that the – because we do Hollywood now, Hollywood has been extended to five weeks, as you probably know – five shows, not five weeks, for two weeks, five hours, including (inaudible) and we did that because the show was – was always so god and it was always – there was so much emotion there that it was the fact that we thought it would be better to extend the Hollywood week and maybe cut down one week on the first shows. It was just probably a – it was just a better idea. So that’s what we’ve gone with this year.

Can you tell us about the decision to add Kara and how you think she’s done to this point?

KW: Well, initially, of course, Idol, in series one was always four judges, and you know secondly , it was really a question of – the reason we picked Kara is that invariably, the Idol, once they’ve been voted as the Idol, obviously, as you know goes in to make an album and singles and all the rest of it, and Kara has always been instrumental at that point, in taking the Idol and either cutting a – or writing for them, producing them, making an album with them, or has been involved in the making of the album. So she’s probably the best qualified person to know what we’re looking for, which we thought was a good idea. She’s young, she’s opinionated, she incredibly talented, also she’s a really good singer. So, in the past when the kid is standing in front of them and said, oh well you cant sing, you sing it then if you know so much about it, this is the one situation where the judge has been able to say all right then, I tell you what, you should have sung it like this and show the kid exactly how they should have sung it. Which does happen in a couple of the audition shows.

So you know it’s just a question of mixing it up, making the judges a little – slightly changing the dynamic in that you know if invariably if Simon hated somebody, then invariably they didn’t go through. This time Kara and Paula, the two girls, if they thought someone showed potential, then they could kind of gang up on Simon, which was quite good TV for me and put them through, and in some cases, when we got to Hollywood, it was something that needed to be done. That some kids were absolutely great in Hollywood, that were maybe not as great as they would normally have been in the – in the audition round. Its just one of those things. You’ve been sitting there all day, and you’re frightened to death, and you know you’re a bit tired or you’ve driven 500 miles to get there and you’re not going to be great. The girls actually picked up on this and said, you know – you know you’ve had a tough day, I think you’ve got potentially, we’ll put you through, and normally, that wouldn’t have happened because you know some (inaudible), so this time it gave them a little more – it gave them a little more leeway to make people better.

How many total hours do you have this year compared to last year?

KW: It’s a little less, because there’s no Idol gives back this year.

And then on the Hollywood time, I remember the first few years, you’d catch kind of the personal dynamics more and you’d catch who was spending too much time in the swimming pool or who was refusing to practice with the other people, and then you didn’t do that the last couple years.

KW: Yes, we done it this year as well. Yes, it’s back in. I like that a lot. I thought that was a – I thought that was good and I can’t remember the reason we decided – we did away with it, but it very definitely is back in this year.

In light of Paula’s comments recently about the audition process and letting certain people on for you know the entertainment value. Has there been any change there or have you considered like who you’d let through now? And do you have a ….

KW: No the fact is, I mean, unfortunately because of that situation, which I’ll be absolutely honest with you, the fine line is, when is a fan dangerous? And we are aware of that. You know there are people that have appeared to us to be quite aggressive in the past that we’ve never let through to the judges. If that person, we think, is going to be a problem, then they don’t get as far as the judges. Obviously we’ve got full security there.

The actual process hasn’t changed, very often we will let fans through, because fans give us good TV and you know they – you know and it winds the other judges up. Which usually is great. But obviously if we eve thought or ever knew – and I can honestly say, in this situation I never – I wasn’t even aware that this person was a little more than a fan, and that’s the truth. I didn’t know.

Obviously, I’d never contaminate the credibility of the show by deliberately putting somebody on who was dangerous in any way, either to themselves or to anybody else in front of the judges, wouldn’t do it. So, the truth of the matter is, it’s a really unfortunate situation, but you know occasionally these things happen.

How is your new judge fitting in with the other judges and also, I’d like to know what’s your reaction to this poll of British school children that says that Simon Cowell is rated more famous that God.

KW: Oh, god. He’s got the John Lennon complex has he? I didn’t know about that. Yes, they’re saying he’s more famous than god? That’s probably a rumor he started himself. I don’t know but I can’t really comment on it. I don’t know any about this nonsense. Look, I wouldn’t say anything; look what trouble John Lennon got into saying that in the 60s.

And Kara is fitting in very well because the fact of the matter, she wasn’t just sort of cold off the streets. I think as I told someone earlier on, she is one of the record producers and composers that – invariably Idol, once they’re voted in, ends up in the studio with. So she was very well qualified to come in at the beginning and say right, this is the kind of person we’re looking for. Now, that’s the first thing.

Two things she brings a couple of added dynamics to the foursome, and bearing in mind that this was always a four judge process at the very beginning in season one in England, it was a four judge situation and in truth, it was quite difficult, as you can imagine, getting our judges and making sure they were right for the show, credibility wise, so that’s why we ended up going with three.

But this just – one it changes things up a little bit, two she’s the first judge – she’s a great singer. And where in previous years, a kid could say oh well, you know you can’t sing, so you can’t tell us, she can and does on a number of occasions say no, you should sing it like this and she lets rip and she’s great.

And thirdly, you know it’s quite interesting to see how she gangs up against Simon with Paula. And you know gives us a slight different dynamic there and some kids that have great potential that maybe had a 500 mile journey to get there, have been waiting since five o’clock in the morning, may have been sleeping overnight, terrified out of their mind, and if great, and normally Simon would say no, and that would be the end of it, we got a situation where sometimes she went with Paula and said, you know what, I you know I don’t think you were great now, but I do think you sound – there was a possibility that you could be very good, and we’re going to put you through and – and that was born out in Hollywood by some of the kids who were maybe not so great in their audition, just OK, turned out to be fabulous. So …

How did Simon react?

KW: Simon reacts – oh, miserable and he didn’t like it and he sometimes had a go – he was – you know it – it was good for the show. It was good dynamic. You know the fact that all of a sudden, he always had the casting vote, occasionally it was good when for once he met a bit of resistance and he couldn’t you know – he couldn’t steamroll the people into going his way.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision not to do Idol give back this year?

KW: Yes, darling, it was partially the decision of Simon Fuller, and there is a committee, there is a charity committee that oversees this whole process and we’re probably going to go down the same route as they do the (red nose day), as you know, which is every other year, now. You know, on top of the fact that it is an incredible stretch. When we’re making three, sometimes four hours a week of you know broadcast TV to add the actual weight of making a huge charity show on top of that – at the same time, stretches that the team – you know like there’s no tomorrow and it is really, very, very difficult to keep the standard of the main show up as well as make this one something special, and then, after like two or three weeks later, have to start on making the finale something special. It’s a heavy – you know it’s a heavy responsibility and a workload on everybody. But generally speaking its not so much that we would do it if it was – you know if we thought it’d be worth it, but you know its something that the committee are going to look at, its – you know this is a difficult financial time for everybody, you know globally, so I think the decision made was lets look – let’s hold it over until next year and do it then.

You spoke already about the policy not changing as specific action auditioners following the incident with Paula, but …

KW: Well, don’t forget this happened – I mean we haven’t – the auditions where already done when this incident happened. So, that’s why it hasn’t changed.

But you haven’t discussed a change for the future?

KW: Not yet, but the truth of the matter is that you know we see – we have a mandate to see absolutely everybody. If a 103,000 people turn up to audition, then we see 103,000 people. You know, not necessarily the judges, but the producers and everything.

Now, it’s always been that if someone looked like they were a bit dangerous or led us to believe they weren’t you know as sensible as they should be, then all – you know they would never ever get as far as the judges, in truth. There’s full security on board there, Antonio – Antonia, looking at you know everybody comes in – you know everybody’s searched, its all – there is – its not worth – I would definitely not put a – I would definitely not put a dangerous or person I thought was even remotely dangerous in front of the judges for the simple reason that you know as I said, you wouldn’t contaminate the show by taking that risk. You just wouldn’t do it. It’s daft. So you know I don’t know how, other than give everybody a psych test before they walk through those doors that you know I can – we can possibly know. All we do is the best we possibly can, we have security there fully, and if that person’s behavior has been irrational, then we would make a decision not to put them in front of the judges.

And the point of (Paula Burchart), in truth, I never had – I didn’t even know that this person was a risk or was what was termed as a stalker. I didn’t know. I mean I knew she was a fan, I knew she was an ardent fan, but that was the only thing that came in front of me. So, you know it’s just an – really and awful unfortunate situation. But I don’t honestly know quite how you know we can legislate for it. To be truthful.

Back to the wild card process. Three of the kids will be the fourth highest vote, and then are you taking…

KW: The judges will decide. We haven’t decided on the final number, it might be nine, it might be 10, it might be 12. OK?

The judges then, from the kids that have been discarded, because if we take nine, there will be what 27 kids left?

OK? Now three of those places are gone, so there’s 24 kids left. They will make up the – the balance on the fourth show, they will make up the balance of the people they thought were either singing a terrible song, or they were under the weather, had a cold or something. In other words, if they thought that they can choose anybody who has been discarded, and bring them into the wildcard show, and then they’d pick the final three.

Could you talk about how much of the changes you’ve done this year are in response to how last season went, or that you know – well, just I guess that’s the first question.

KW: Well, the fact is, you know when you get to the eighth series of any – of any series, especially in America, you know you’ve got to expect it, logically, especially if you’ve been in this business for 40 years, like I have, to start for the ratings to diminish slightly in part.

Now, I think the – and you’ll have to correct me here. I’m not quite sure. I think the whole of the television audience last year, right across the board went down. Every major show took a hit, and I believe the average was about 12 percent. I think we were seven percent down. So the truth of the matter is, we didn’t do that badly, and particularly, seeing as we are in our eighth season, I was really quite heartened, and then in the finale, we – you know we were back up again and you know we got 97 million votes in the finale. So I’m not overly concerned – I’m – I think we will drop because everything has this season, I’m sure we have.

There were no panic changes, I have to say. It wasn’t oh my god, we’ve dropped seven percent, what are we going to do to change the whole show. This wouldn’t have been on the TV for eight years if it wasn’t doing it right. And in truth, any you know any production team worth its salt, actually optimizes what the show can do after three season. Because if they haven’t got it right by then, they never will. So we are tweaking around, trying to make it a bit more interesting. Something’s will work, something’s wont. I don’t expect that our – I expect that the figures will probably drop a bit, but you know I’m not ashamed of that because I’ve got eight years of success behind me so there’s not been any panic decisions made over that. I’m not that worried about it.

Two questions about the wild card. One is, you know when you’ve gotten rid of the system after season three, you guys said that one of the concerns was that by grouping people in one group, the next group, the next group, you sometimes made things unfair. You stacked the deck against certain contestants. And then people like Cory Clark would get through because there was no body in his tier. Do you have any safeguards against that? And also, are you going to make sure this time to show all the semifinalists at some point before the semifinals begin.

KW: Hopefully. I mean I can’t say that we will definitely show – just take your second question first, the majority; we have made a concerted effort to try and show as many of those semifinalists before.

Now if they walked in and were just good and were boring and I’ve got someone else that was bad, but was really entertaining, for those audition shows, they I would probably go the way of the entertainment, and we will get to know those kids that are through to the final 36, as well as we possibly can and during the show that they appear on, there will be little interstitial films about them so we get to know about them. That’s the first thing.

It’s different in that before, I think we only put two people through each week, for a number of weeks. So there were 10 discarded, you know or I forget how many kids we had, maybe it was only 10 and we had eight discarded. But whatever it was, this year we are putting three through – the top boy, the top girl and the next highest vote, whatever it might be. And this might mean that in the end, top 12, there’s an imbalance between boys and girls, I’m not sure. And then so that nine will go through, then when we get to the wild card show. The next highest vote from those three shows will be three of the wild card show – wild card entrance. And the judges can pick from anywhere else the kids that they want to make up that number. All those kids we’re seeing again, and then the judges will decide who the final three will be. So, its fairer than it was in the past, in that – the old way, in that three are going through instead of two, so there’s less chance of us missing somebody, and the judges can – you know if something goes horrendously awry, judges can fix it on the wildcard show.

So, it is fairer than it was in the old way, and also – there was another point. Sorry, just jumped out of my – I’m sorry. The judges can pick – no it’s gone. But overall, it is – its not as unfair as it used to be – oh, I know what I was going to say. I was going to say that we found, in the last couple of years, that in putting the 12 of which six and six were going to go through, four the night – four weeks before hand, before they actually got to the top 12, and finally you got to about the top eight, you’d been looking at these kids for eight weeks, eight or nine weeks and you were starting to get a bit bored with them if they didn’t have the kind of character that you wanted. So this keeps it fresher for longer, and give us more chance to know all the 36 and changes things up more definitely when you get to the top 12. OK?

You mentioned earlier that the people auditioning this year are much more savvy than in the past, did you get a lot of people with gimmicks, you know costumes, crazy things like that.

KW: Some, but you know they were also aware that Simon hates costumes, and you know unless the person – they couldn’t come just in a costume and guarantee that they’re going to get on TV, not anymore. You just close them out; they don’t even get a chance to open their mouths half the time. he doesn’t like it, he thinks its stupid, he thinks its stupid, he thinks it the end of the program, but he wont’ do it. Occasionally, somebody who is dressed a little unusually did get through, but you know we find generally that they were pretty talented. They might not always got through, but they could sing. So invariably – invariably there were kids who dressed outrageously to get on, but invariably, the majority of them didn’t get through.

Back to last season and the little bit of a controversy about Carly, and then bringing it to this season. There’s been a report that the little girl from Annie might be among those who were there this year. Is there any way that the screening process could be changed in some way so that people with pretty extensive professional experience aren’t competing against others with much lesser experience?

KW: Tom, that already if they were that good and they had made it to that extent they would have some sort of management, they would have some sort of recording contract. So – or have had.

Generally speaking, when they walk through the door, we like to take them at face value if we think they stand a chance, if we think they’ve got a good voice, its not – its kind of not really fair to say, oh just because I’m really good and someone may have spotted me five years ago – I mean don’t forget Kelly Clarkson has schlepped around Los Angeles having no success before she went back to Texas and started working in a bar before we found her. I don’t think anyone would say she didn’t deserve to be there. So the truth of the matter is, yes, if there’s any form of management contract or recording contract or anything that is overtly professional, then we wouldn’t – we shy away from it.

We do love the fact that you know its – we are finding a previously undiscovered star, but it wont happen all the time. just like anything, you’ve got to take it at its face value and if you think this person – you know very often, people have been damaged by the music business in the past and they turn up and – we kind of restore their faith in it a bit because – I – if someone was really fantastic singer and stood in front of me and sang their heart out and was great and they said to me, oh, I used to be in West Side Story in you know four years ago or something on Broadway, my question would be have you got a recording contract now? No? Have you got a management now? No? Then you’re fine.

I couldn’t say you’re fabulous, but because you used to do something that was a bit professional then – you know on your bike. I couldn’t do that. I don’t think that’s fair. So the truth is, where we – the majority of the kids have never had any experience at all – at all. And are, as we like them to be. But there probably are a couple in there that have had a go before and been unsuccessful.

There’s been a lot of relatively confusing back and forth, particularly the last week, for our point of view. You know, Paula’s been saying – Paula Abdul’s been saying she told the producers. She said, in fact, she said this one’s a stalker, do not let her in, everyone knew, I was shaking is what she said.

KW: Well, I was in the room, mate, and I can absolutely put my hand on my heart and say I didn’t know. And that’s the truth. I didn’t. If I thought anyone was dangerous, for any reason, I would not let them in. And that’s one thing.

Now, she may have mentioned it to her – maybe a security man. She may have mentioned it to another junior producer, I’m not sure – really I’m not sure, because since then, you know (inaudible) remember the incident, that you know I don’t – I cant honestly remember the situation. I know we’ve got pretty ample security there. We’ve got pretty heavy security there. so there’s no way in a million years, if the inference is that I would put someone in there in front of them because it would be good television, then anyone who knows any of the shows I’ve made over the last 20 years will know I don’t do that. I just don’t. So the fact is, she may have mentioned it to somebody. She certainly didn’t mention it to me. She certainly didn’t mention it to someone who had the clout to say, OK, we don’t let that person in.

And she – you know all I can say is personally, I wasn’t aware of it. End story. OK?

About Paula Abdul, there’s been some chatter online and in the media reports how secure – insecure her job might be, is she going to remain on the show?

KW: There’s never ever – there’s never been any discussion that we would want to get rid of Paula. You know, even if there were people in production that didn’t like here. You know, and Simon’s one of them. You know he waffles in and out, he likes her one minute, he loves her the next, he can’t stand her the next. The truth of the matter is we’ve never had a discussion of is her job in any jeopardy. No its not, it’s not in any jeopardy. America loves Paula. She’s an integral part of this program. And as far as I’m concerned I hope she’s there until the day it comes off the air. End of story.

Now, as always with – you know with these deals, contracts come up and people renegotiate, and people say, oh, that – you know attorneys for networks and thins say, oh, well if you don’t increase this, then you’re not going to be on it, and there’s a lot of this goes on, but the truth of the matter is, never have I ever been faced with anyone saying to me, Paula’s got to go, Paula’s asking for too much money. The negotiations are not going well. She’s got to leave the program. That has never, ever happened. And I would – you know she is one of the foundation blocks of this series, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lose her, and I don’t honestly think America would want to lose her either. At least she keeps Simon well in control, but she’s you know she’s worth her weight in gold in that area alone.

American Idol premieres tonight, January 13 in the US on FOX. Stay tuned to Inside Pulse for more exclusive interviews with judges, Simon Cowell and Kara DioGuardi later this week.