How ‘American Idol’ Plans to Keep the ‘Phenomenon’ Going After 22 Seasons

“It’s a refreshment versus a complete overhaul,” showrunner Megan Michaels Wolflick tells TheWrap of the ABC competition show

American-Idol
"American Idol" judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie (Disney/Eric McCandless)

When “American Idol” showrunner Megan Michaels Wolflick first joined the show as an associate producer in its second season, she knew the ABC competition show had established itself as a “phenomenon.”

“Back then, I was the same age as the hopefuls… I didn’t realize the impact of how big it was until [I went] out to these hometowns,” Michaels Wolflick told TheWrap. “It’s creating so much hope for so many Americans who are watching it week-to-week, watching it live, voting and interacting.”

Michaels Wolflick joined the “Idol” team just as the show kickstarted its text messaging voting, and was particularly impressed by the show’s boundary-pushing live interaction, which she noted had not been broached by any other networks at the time.

22 years later, now as the show’s showrunner and EP, Michaels Wolflick has been a driving force behind “American Idol’s” continuing evolution and innovation, with current judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan at the helm. (Perry announced she would be exiting the series following the upcoming season prior to this interview, and ABC declined to comment on Perry’s departure.)

Just as network executives examine adapting their offerings in the era of streaming, Michaels Wolflick and her team keep a close eye on meeting new viewers where they’re at – which is, expectedly, on social media.

“The next generation of ‘American Idol’ is reaching people in a new way through our social channels that we’ve never have been before,” she said, pointing to Season 21 winner Iam Tongi’s audition clip, which has tallied up to 25 million views on YouTube. “It’s about pushing and striving to be better in different ways than the linear television formula, which worked 20 years ago, but now it’s 2024, and things have evolved in a very dramatic way.”

As “Idol” aims to satisfy audiences with new twists and online audience interaction, Michaels Wolflick employs the metaphor of a historic home to describe “Idol”: The team is working to renovate the rooms as they go to make their “well-built house” into a “smart home.”

“It’s a refreshment versus a complete overhaul of what is at its core,” Michaels Wolflick said. “What is at its core is a dream — the dream that remains the same — which is to become an overnight sensation, and also provide [contestants] with what we’re promising, which is to become a superstar.”

After producing a roster of household names in the 2000s — including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks and Phillip Phillips — Michaels Wolflick notes the show continues to deliver success for its winners, pointing to Season 19 winner Chayce Beckham, whose debut single was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

“Maybe it took a little bit longer than it took in 2002, but it’s still happening — that dream,” she said. “We can still keep that promise of that dream.”

The team found themselves pivoting more than they ever had during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted them to turn their in-person auditions into a virtual open call in an effort to preserve the same face-to-face interaction with the aspiring performers.

“‘American Idol’ is not just about a singer, it’s about a personality, it’s about a connection — It’s about the unspeakable that you can only really find when you’re talking to someone,” Michaels Wolflick said. “When we shifted to virtual auditions, people and stories came out that would have never, ever come to ‘American Idol.’”

Michaels Wolflick guessed the show’s last three winners since starting virtual auditions — Tongi, Beckham and Noah Thompson — wouldn’t have traveled across the country and waited in line for hours to come to an open call, noting how the virtual process opens up the “Idol” doors to “every corner of the country.”

About a year into conducting virtual auditions, Michaels Wolflick realized the contingency plan born from the pandemic should remain in place to ensure accessibility for potential contestants.

“How else do we get to all these people?” she said. “It so easy — you are on your job, and you can go in the back and click the link. You might have three kids and have no childcare — bring them on. It’s anytime, anyplace, anywhere that you can audition now.”

Whereas “Idol” emerged as one of the most prominent reality and competition based programs of the 2000s, the genre has blown up in the subsequent two decades — to which Michaels Wolflick says “bring it on.”

“I love to watch any new format that comes on — I love to see what are people doing, what’s new? what’s different?” she said. “We can all exist in this world together of content and keep pushing each other to be more innovative and pushing boundaries any way we can.”

This season will introduce a fresh change of pace as the judges pay homage to their hometowns with visits to Leesburg, Ga. for Bryan, Santa Barbara, Calif. for Perry and Tuskegee, Ala. for Richie.

“We actually set up shop in their towns in venues that were important to them,” she explained. “It’s going to feel different. In a lot of these auditions, there’s no desk, it feels more intimate. It’s all about the people that they meet, representing those hometowns and bringing it home.”

“American Idol” Season 22 premieres Sunday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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