American Idol: Less of a reality and more of a show

By Brailey Lisath, Staff Writer

February 20, 2013

A crowd of over 6,000 gathered in Charlotte, N.C. this past June with hopes of becoming the next American Idol—or, more accurately, in hopes of being marketable enough to even see the judges room. Now in season 12, the singing competition that has drawn in millions of viewers since 2002 is less of a reality and more of a show.

Audiences are presented with an audition process that cuts right to the celebrity panel. The result is the perception that the entireties of hopefuls sang for these particular judges and were assessed on their abilities as performers. In actuality, the process had little to do with talent and the judges, and more to do with entertainment value and profit.

A High Point University sophomore interned with American Idol and offers an inside account, but for confidentiality purposes, this source wishes to remain anonymous. The student worked as a production assistant during the Charlotte round of auditions. Her job entailed assisting the executive producers in the judges’ room throughout the duration of auditions. She saw first-hand the process in which contestants were evaluated and chosen in N.C.

Out of the thousands who showed to sing, 37 singers earned a ticket to Hollywood out of Charlotte—but not because of the judges’ selection. The executive producers of the show make the decision before the contestants enter the judges’ room, the intern said.

“Everything you see is fake. They’re looking for people who are marketable, who look good on camera, and who are going to make them money,” said the HPU student.

Footage is captured during the series of auditions conducted with the producers, prior to a face-to-face encounter with the judges. These auditions are purposely done with the same background and wardrobe, orchestrated specifically for pre-selection and preferential editing. Clips of contestants during their auditions with producers are often manipulated to seem as though the audition took place with the judges.

“Unless you were a contestant that was put through purely for entertainment, if you got through to see the judges, you’d basically already been chosen for Hollywood,” the intern said.

Holly Miller, a 16-year-old from Waverly, Ohio, was one of the few who walked away with a golden ticket from Charlotte.

“There were different rounds of auditions before what you see on air. You auditioned for maybe thirty seconds with the producers, they told you yes or no and gave some feedback. You have to remember, it’s half a TV show, half talent – you could be the most gifted singer, but not be what they’re looking for. I was very lucky,” she said through a telephone correspondence.

To advance in the competition, a contestant must have an edge. Executive producers of the show seek to find that edge at face value before America is fully exposed to the participants; they want individuals that audiences can connect with, root for, and, most importantly, compel them to stay tuned.

“I think what set me apart was my age. I was 15 at the time of the audition, and I think people didn’t really expect my voice to come from me. It’s much more mature than people assumed, and I think that’s what intrigued the judges,” said Miller.

The motivation for ratings and viewer satisfaction was not confined to the singers advanced to Hollywood. The few chosen solely for the viewers’ entertainment were identified from the beginning and further encouraged throughout the entirety of auditions, explained the intern.

“They would tell them how good they are, that they should be louder—they’d basically encourage them to do what’s going to make people laugh,” she commented.

One of the most intriguing events of the season took place during the auditions in Charlotte; an argument between two celebrity judges, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. Clips from different auditions were cut together to appear as though an agreement had been reached. What seemed to be an on air reconciliation between the two was a fabrication.

Charisse McGhee-Lazarou, a current professor at High Point University, spent the majority of her professional career working as a producer for television. Prior to moving to High Point, she was vice president of primetime-scripted television at Lifetime.

“Everything that you see on television—comedy, drama, reality—is a narrative; it’s a story. They want the audience to be invested. In order for the audience to be invested, they need to invite them in, they need to give them a reason to stay and then they need to satisfy them at the end. So, the term reality television is a little bit of a misnomer. They shoot all that film, they go back, they look at it and they cut together a story. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it happened. Not on The Real World, not on Big Brother, not on American Idol. The producers create the story,” she said.

All new episodes of American Idol air on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. If or when you watch, pay attention to the stories with which you connect and reflect on the journey to creating them.