Pop Culture

The secrets behind 'American Idol's' incredible comeback

When the house lights came up at L.A. Live's Nokia Theatre on May 26, 2010, the night of the Season 9 finale, there was a widely held belief in the entertainment world that "American Idol" was going down.

Gone was the show's star judge, Simon Cowell, who had announced his departure four months earlier; its experiment with a four-person panel, which included daytime host Ellen DeGeneres and songwriter Kara DioGuardi, had ostensibly failed (both would exit the show within the next three months); and viewers less than enthused with the year's crop of contestants had started tuning out.

With ratings tumbling 18 percent on finale night and giant question marks looming on the horizon, the members of the "Idol" brain trust — which include creator Simon Fuller, FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Fox president of alternative programming Mike Darnell and executive producers Nigel Lythgoe (brought back after a two-season leave) and Ken Warwick, along with judge Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest — had their work cut out for them.

How do you even begin to consider tweaking a program that's consistently brought in a weekly audience of more than 20 million viewers? The winning formula turned out to be a music trifecta: pop diva Jennifer Lopez, rock star Steven Tyler and record executive Jimmy Iovine, the combination of which resuscitated the show that remains a ratings powerhouse unlike any other series of the past decade. Of course, getting there was no song. For the first time, the stars and makers of "American Idol" reveal how its new identity came to be.

May 2010
Mike Darnell:
We started thinking about Season 10 about a month prior to the finale, and it was scary. To be frank, we weren't coming off our best season, and while the finale did fine, and it was a lovely tribute to Simon Cowell, that goodbye made it feel like the end of an era. You're like, "Well, where do we go now?"

Cecile Frot-Coutaz: Everybody was saying: "I wouldn't want to be in your position. … I wouldn't want your job right now." There was also a lot of pressure internally. Like, "What are you gonna do? What's your plan?"

Darnell: And almost immediately, the press started in with, "Simon's leaving, and the show's having a bad year; it's not going to work again." People estimated it would be down 20 to 40 percent. It starts to get to you after awhile. And so we had to bear down and just say, "We gotta put together the best roster we can and hope that the talent's good." And we started our search.

Simon Fuller: My perspective was: Simon is a tough act to follow. You can't try and copy him or bring in someone to replace him, so we have to look in a different direction, a different spirit, a different feeling for the show.

Frot-Coutaz: I got really paralyzed because I was thinking of it as replacing him. You start making lists, like, "OK, what are his attributes? What makes Cowell work?" And you realize that you can't find that person because it doesn't exist. So I was stuck and thought, "This is mission impossible." Then sometime in June, I realized that was the wrong approach. We have to find a group of people who will be credible, have good chemistry and be entertaining.

Fuller: I was thinking we needed someone who's more famous than Simon but also we had to rethink the show. We needed to kind of reignite "Idol," give it a new beginning. With Simon leaving, we had to bring back the spirit we may have lost and also instill a new element of energy and fun, so the next important decision was bringing back Nigel Lythgoe. He's an absolutely brilliant producer and a dear friend who's been with me from Day 1 and someone I trust implicitly.

Nigel Lythgoe: My feeling was that you have to go in a new direction. Whoever replaced Cowell would've been a pale imitation, so I certainly didn't want to go that way. After being welcomed back by the production team, I was also informed that, rather than having a leader — as there was when I was sort of running the ship — it was now done by committee, and that committee being Mike Darnell, Cecile, Simon Fuller and Ken Warwick. So it was an interesting first few months.

July - August 2010
Ryan Seacrest:
Ellen realized "Idol" wasn't the perfect fit for her and that on top of doing her daily show, it was a lot of work. She's a dear friend, I loved having her there.

Randy Jackson: As for Kara, I think she found it hard to get her footing and figure out how she would fit into this thing. And with four people, the timing was difficult as well. It's tough to walk into something so established and become, not just the third wheel but the fourth.

Darnell: There were meetings, conference calls, video conferences between myself, Cecile, Fuller, [Fox chairman] Peter Rice, Nigel and Ken — for some, we were all together, others were piecemeal. But for me personally, it was thousands of phone calls, and that is not an exaggeration.

Frot-Coutaz: We met a lot of people, we looked at a lot of names. I wanted to make sure we didn't leave any stone unturned, hadn't made any assumptions and we'd gone as broad as we possibly could. There was no bad idea.

Darnell: We weren't sure what direction we were going, so we just kept taking meetings. We had a list: Mariah Carey was on it, Shania Twain, Harry Connick Jr. Cecile and I were the first line of defense, and we met with at least 40 people.

Frot-Coutaz: Then I had lunch with Randy Jackson, and we were brainstorming, and he's the one who said, "Have you thought about Steven Tyler?" We hadn't. It turned out Kara, who deserves some credit for this, had just worked with Steven, and she brought up the idea to Randy.

Jackson: Unbeknownst to Kara, I mentioned Steven to the producers. I thought, he's a guy where what you see is what you get. And I think these shows need more of that.

Darnell: I didn't know what I was looking for until Steven walked in. I kept hoping for a personality, someone different, who didn't fit into the mold. So I came into my office a little late, his back was turned, and I have a piano in my office which he was playing — not something rock 'n' roll-y, I think it was classical. He turned around, and I was wearing my cowboy hat, which I often do, and he looked at me and said, "You're a freak!" Then we just started talking. He was ultracool yet not snobby about music. He was so honest about his rehab and Aerosmith; he told me his father was a classical musician, that he listens to everything and that some music makes him cry. He was entertaining, just like you see him now. Having spent 40 years being a huge rock star, he didn't watch what he said, and I don't just mean him cursing. He was filter-less. We met for 20 minutes, and I knew that day. I literally ran to Peter Rice's office the minute he left and said, "We finally got one."

Seacrest: I remember Cecile telling me she was going to go meet Steven Tyler and she wasn't quite sure what to expect. He blew her away. She said, "You would think he's this tough, badass rock star, which he is, but he's probably got the biggest heart on the panel."

Darnell: Now with Jennifer, she was on Simon's lips and on his list, and we loved it. We were invested in her long before we had Steven.

Fuller: I had lunch with Jennifer and her manager Benny Medina at the Beverly Hills Hotel in April of last year to ask her to do a show with me called "Q'Viva." But as we were talking, I had in the back of my mind that she would be great for "Idol." So I brought it up halfway through the main course, maybe into the coffee and tea. I just threw it out there. She was a huge fan of the show, so she knew all about "Idol" — she was like an expert, actually. She watched it every season. Jennifer didn't say yes there and then, but I knew she was intrigued, and eventually I got her to do it.

Seacrest: I remember Benny Medina calling me after they had done all their meetings and seen all the players. He wanted some input, and I said: "Do it. She won't need it, but I promise you, I will always have Jennifer's back on that live show. She will be phenomenal."

September 2010
We hired them without having them sit together, and we didn't know how they would be dynamically, which is probably the most important thing when it comes to these shows. So I asked Ryan to invite them to dinner the night before we made our big announcement.

Seacrest: It was the four of us — no agents, no spouses, nobody else — and top secret. Cecile and I had talked about having us get together and shoot the breeze, just talk freely and openly about the show in the past and the future and what we can all bring to it. And within the first 12 minutes of us sitting in my living room, we could all tell that this was going to be fun.

Jackson: We got on like a house on fire. Ryan and I looked at each other and knew it was definitely going to work. Then some of the execs dropped by later, and they were like, "Wow, it's like old pals week."

Seacrest: Randy's telling stories about the Journey days, and Steven is telling stories about … well, he's got so many great stories. And he asked questions.

Jackson: I said: "Look, you can say whatever you want. You always have to call it as you see it and stand behind whatever you say. If you love something to death, love something to death. I don't care who says what — do you, always." It's exactly the same advice we give the kids. I think we were really blessed, finding two legends — and Jennifer was an avid fan of the show — who could jump into this. They were able and really felt the nurturing passion that a show like this requires.

Seacrest: Steven tells Jennifer that he just watched "The Back-Up Plan" and thought she was brilliant in it. Jennifer says, "Is that the reason you want to sit beside me on 'Idol'? 'The Back-Up Plan'?" And we all laughed. The next day we announced it.

Darnell: The news that Jennifer and Steven were joining the show had basically leaked, and we debated whether we should announce it officially. We decided to do it at the Forum in September because leaks don't mean anything until you hear that it's official. And the crowd was out of their minds when Jennifer and Steven came out. It was exciting. It felt like a new beginning. We all sat on a panel and spoke to the press, and they were already charming together. The boys were protective over Jennifer. It was lovely.

Fuller: There are a lot of preconceived thoughts about Steven and Jennifer. They're known as these icons — but not people. Jennifer was always loved, but is she a diva? I think she was quite polarizing prior to "Idol," but as we got to know her, we got to see the sensitive, funny, compassionate, smart side. Then it's, like, "Hey, she's kind of cool."

Frot-Coutaz: Chemistry builds over time in working together, but we knew both would bring very different things to it. And that's what matters, ultimately, is to have different kinds of characters and points of views. Plus, they're both passionate people. Was it a gamble? Of course it was. Everything is.