Nigel Lythgoe: 'Idol' Not Trying to Match 'The X Factor'

Executive producer says veteran series must react to awards shows and 'Glee;' downplays row with Simon Cowell

Returning to American Idol this pivotal 10th season, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says the show has to constantly raise its game, and not just because The X Factor is joining the Fox lineup this fall. Lythgoe claims that despite Idol’s production values looking bigger this year —an X Factor staple—the look is not a direct attempt to match the new Simon Cowell-produced talent show debuting next season. In fact, Lythgoe says that would be a losing battle.

Instead, the producer is focused on rising above precedents set by awards shows and even Fox’s own Glee. Lythgoe spoke about the improbable ratings this season for the 10-year-old Idol, and what lies ahead, with B&C’s Ben Grossman. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

How is the season going so far?

I’m very pleased with it, in truth. When you lose your star, or stars, and you’ve been around for 10 years, it’s really good to still be successful.

Are you relieved with the ratings?

(Huge laugh) Yes, you could say that.

What has been the biggest surprise of the season?

Everyone said Simon leaving would be the end of the show, but obviously it’s down to the format. The fit of the new judges was a huge surprise on the road. Does the show feel bigger this year from a production standpoint? I’m pleased it does. And the music integrity is stronger. We have Glee now to contend with. We don’t want to be Glee, even though it’s huge—we want to feel like this is a rock music show. Look at the CMAs, it was amazing, the Grammys. We were slipping behind, and technologically, things have changed in the last 10 years.

X Factor is coming in the fall. How has that affected Idol?

And (NBC’s) The Voice is coming first. Everything like that is going to dilute the genre, the talent show genre. But certainly X Factor is a fantastic show out of England, huge production values we couldn’t keep up with if we wanted to. So we need to concentrate on the heart of the show, the simplicity of the show, the integrity of the show.

But it seems like Idol is starting to look more like X Factor?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because we aren’t the same type of program. Why would you do the same program? Fox [isn’t] stupid, they know the two can live side by side. I think they can live together. It’s great we’re on the same network and will never be against each other.

You have said in the British press that X Factor is not a talent show. You really feel that way?

Let me put that into perspective. I was asked the difference between So You Think You Can Dance and X Factor. I said X Factor has all the fun of the circus, which the British public love. That is what Simon does very well, he gets characters on (X Factor) we love to hate, like (British version contestant) Wagner. I can’t do that, I have to keep the integrity. Then it gets printed Simon has lost the integrity— I basically said what they printed, but not how it was printed. I always complimented Simon, said he knows exactly what he is doing.

How will X Factor do in America?

I think it will do very well because of Simon, and he’s well loved here. How well? If I knew that, I would always make successful programs.

Simon has said Idol is better this year. Does his opinion matter to you?

I think he was being generous. Without question, the talent is better. We had to make changes because our star
 wasn’t in it. With his decision to leave, it forced us into being creative and doing the spring cleaning. It’s a 10-year-old lady—she’s been around a long time and was getting weary. Simon’s opinion always matters to me. I think we have a mutual respect. I hope so, anyway.

What do you think of The Voice?

I don’t know the program well enough. I love the concept, not being able to see the person and just making a decision on the voice. But it’s a little dangerous—we all know you don’t just buy a record because people sound good. I guess it’s about judges and mentoring. If they have the same production values as X Factor, who knows? They have good mentors, by the look of it.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman