RS West ’16: Conversing candidly with Nigel Lythgoe

An interview with Nigel Lythgoe (pictured) at Realscreen West on Thursday (June 9) saw the choreographer, dancer and exec producer take audiences behind-the-scenes of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.
June 10, 2016

U.S. broadcaster Fox’s recent movement deeper into the genre of kid-focused reality television with So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation – the junior edition of the dancing competition – was something that almost didn’t happen, according to Nigel Lythgoe (pictured) – choreographer, dancer and CEO of Nigel Lythgoe Productions.

In a keynote interview at the 2016 edition of Realscreen West on Thursday (June 9), Lythgoe provided candid insight into the television landscape, his biggest lessons learned over the course of his career and the behind-the-scenes drama of American Idol.

What follows below are several takeaways from the interview, which was conducted by David Lyle, president of Pact U.S.

1) He held major reservations towards the junior version of So You Think You Can Dance

The youth spin-off program of the international reality competition series So You Think You Can Dance features contestants, ages eight to 13, as they’re paired with a So You Think You Can Dance “All-Star” to provide mentorship and participate as a partner in performances.

“Like many people, I’m not really happy with too many changes – I don’t mind tweaks – but going from 18 to 30 years old down to eight to 13 is a huge change.

“Now that we’re really doing this, these kids are so damn talented it’s amazing. People had said to me they’re not going to have the same background [as adult dancers featured in past seasons] – that we’ve dealt with racism, death, heartbreak within the dance world because you can express so much emotion by using the movement of dance. Listening to these kids’ stories, whether their dad’s incarcerated, whether their mom’s an alcoholic or they come from broken homes – if these choreographers are really clever, they’re going to use these kids emotions in the contemporary.”

2) American Idol was initially meant to be much more cut-throat

pact u.s. president david lyle (left) and nigel lythgoe.

Pact U.S. president David Lyle (left) and Nigel Lythgoe.

“On the first season we had a red room that Coca-Cola sponsored, and the kids would sit in there just on the other side of where they auditioned, but we didn’t have an audience at that point. [It was] thought that we should listen to these kids sing and then fire one. Just tell one you’re not good enough to be in front of America, although they’d been on the show. Simon [Cowell] wandered into this Coke room and said to this poor kid, ‘We’re not putting you through. Go home.’ Everyone burst into tears, they’re wailing and screaming, and there’s Ryan [Seacrest] and Brian [Dunkleman] saying, ‘That’s it for this week! Join us again!” I looked at this that night in the edit suite and I said, ‘We can’t do this.’ I went to Mike [Darnell] and I said ‘That’s a terrible thing that’s just happened, you can’t show America this guy singing and then take the vote away from America because Simon Cowell‘s wandered in and said ‘you’re not good enough.’ He changed his mind, we re-shot that little bit because we weren’t live then and we went on air with what became American Idol.”

3) The Nicki Minaj-Mariah Carey feuding was not a producer’s ruse

“I think it was a mistake… It was head-butting all the way through it. We’d constantly read in the press that the producers were attempting to cause this friction, and we really, really weren’t. There was a standup row one day we couldn’t stop.

“My gut instinct told me [to avoid it] but I went along with the challenge.”

4) Returning to American Idol for the finale provided closure

“I had been fired two years before, so when they called me to say they wanted me to do the final, I thought ‘Really? I don’t want to go back and do this.’ I did it purely and simply for my own self, it was closure for me.

“I didn’t want to use any stars because people tuned into American Idol not to see Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, but to see the talent that was on. I was really insistent that if I was going to come back, we weren’t going to have bundles of people coming on to sing their records and nothing to do with American Idol, but I was determined to get all the Idols coming back despite litigation and court cases. That’s what we did.”

5) A television channel about Broadway could find an audience

“I would love to see a Broadway channel. You see the success of their shows, their events. We used to have a program 100 years ago in Britain called Armchair Theatre and there would be great plays, great musicals and behind-the-scenes. There’s an awful lot [to feature] about Broadway; the musicals and the movies about them too. There’s a really good channel there that’s well defined and you know exactly what you get, and I think that’s what we’ll need in future.”

(Photos by Nelson Blanton)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.