Pop Culture

Having a theme is a first for ‘Idol’ semifinalists

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “The Apprentice,” “Real World” or another show, send in your questions. Andy Dehnart, msnbc.com's Television Editor and creator of Reality Blurred, will try to answer them.

Q: On "American Idol," why do the contestants sing songs that are probably older than they are? Are they forced to choose from a pre-selected list? To me, those songs aren't representative of what a true "American Idol" should sing. Kelly Clarkson isn't screeching out Motown hits. Wannabe pop stars should sing current pop songs, not what they're doing now. — Angee, Clarksville, Tenn.

A: And it's not what they're going to be doing this year, either.

While a few contestants chose modern pop songs to sing during the audition and Hollywood rounds, Tuesday's semifinal round will, for the first time in the show's history, find the contestants performing from a pre-selected list of themed songs.

As we discussed last season, the contestants have typically selected songs after being given a CD with hundreds of tunes that meet the theme, although they were allowed to pick any song, even those not on the CD. This year, however, the contestants will be forced to choose from just 50 songs. The theme for the first semifinal round is 1960s music, which is not exactly modern pop.

Last Friday, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told reporters that forcing them to choose a song from a list of 50 is a result of both bad song choices during past seasons and producers' desire to speed up the clearance process (they have to get permission from multiple sources for each song that's performed on the show).

But why choose themed songs, especially when those themes aren't exactly current music, as you point out? That's largely because the producers want to make the best TV show possible, one that appeals to its wide range of viewers.

"Asking America to vote on a performer they don't know with the possibility of a song they don't know we felt was not right, and there were some strange songs," Lythgoe told reporters, according to The Buffalo News.

That may impact record sales, but the argument seems to be that it makes for a better TV show. And really, most of the producers' decisions are about creating the best TV show possible. If this were only a singing competition, they wouldn't allow terrible singers to make it through to perform in front of the judges, and so on.

Q: “Survivor's” challenges usually have puzzles and obstacle courses. How long and what does it take to build these complex structures in the middle of nowhere? Also who comes up with the ideas? The producers? — Anonymous

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Before the contestants ever show up, those challenges are rehearsed and tested by a group of 20-something crew members called the Dream Team. They run through the challenges, competing for beer, while the challenge crew makes sure everything works and the camera crews practice filming it.

In advance of last season, "Survivor: China," Jeff Probst filmed a series of behind-the-scenes videos about the show's production. A few of those focused on challenges, and they're on YouTube. The most relevant one walks through the construction of the "Great Wall" challenge from last season, which took a month to build.

In a separate tour of the base camp, where the 400 or so crew members live and work, Jeff showed off the challenge department, which develops challenge concepts when they're in Los Angeles and then refines and constructs the challenges on location.

Q: On "The Amazing Race," if each team runs out of the cash they're given to purchase the small items — taxi fares, etc. — then why wouldn't they just use their own ATM/credit cards for purchases/cash instead of begging for money from strangers? — Anonymous, Huntington Beach, Calif.

A: Because it's against the rules.

Teams surrender all credit cards, cash and other forms of currency at the beginning of the competition, and race around the world with only what they're given: cash for each leg of the race and producer-provided credit cards that can be used to purchase airline tickets. They can keep money from leg to leg if they don't spend it all, but otherwise, they have no source of cash.

It's worth noting that we haven't seen teams beg for money from strangers for a while now, since "The Amazing Race 9." Watching Americans competing for $1 million begging locals for money was rather unseemly, and was often the product of the non-elimination leg's punishment, which forced teams to surrender all their money and possessions.

Now, teams that get saved by a non-elimination leg get "marked for elimination" and have to complete an extra task. But they still receive money for that leg of the race just like all the other teams, and can spend only that which they're given.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.

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