American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe talks to TBI

Nigel Lythgoe is one of British television’s most successful exports. The former head of entertainment and comedy at then ITV franchise holder London Weekend Television is best known as a judge on talent series Popstars, where he was nicknamed ‘Nasty Nigel’.

However, the man who commissioned Gladiators (the first time) and Blind Date, is most widely known in the States as the executive producer of Fox’s American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Lythgoe, who also produced Survivor when he was at Bob Geldof-owned indie Planet 24, is also president of Simon Fuller’s 19 Television and has just launched a new production company with Fuller called Big Red Two, which is producing NBC’s latest reality series Superstars of Dance.

How have you found being a British television executive in the United States?

From my point of view it’s been wonderful. But I’ve been lucky enough to be hugely successful in the States so I’ve been very well looked after. You are expected to work very hard but the rewards are much greater. You have produced Idols and American Idols.

What is the main difference between the two shows?

There’s been a tidal shift in the judging in the States; at first they booed Simon Cowell and were ready to get their baseball bats out, but that has changed. American Idol isn’t any larger [than Idols], it’s only larger in terms of the size of the country. We’re holding auditions in football stadiums, but it was equally as large a production in the UK in terms of the studio and the number of people working on it. However, the talent pool is so much bigger in the US; you run out of talent sometimes [in the UK].

Are US networks becoming more accepting of international ideas?

They’re becoming much more accepting of international formats and particularly international producers. If there’s not a British executive producer on your reality show, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

What about the pitching process? Is it more difficult to pitch to the US networks?

When we were pitching So You Think You Can Dance we went to Fox to pitch it to Gail Berman, but the whole idea that I was able to get in to pitch was purely down to the success of American Idol. Americans knew that they weren’t in the reality game so it was much easier for Brits to get in for reality shows. However, in scripted they’ll just rewrite it and comedy is tough – the cable channels show the original British comedies and don’t do their own. Gavin and Stacey, for example, should work, but it hasn’t. They’re desperate for scripted shows but don’t follow it through. This is one of the big differences between the UK and the US; in the States you’re only as good as your last show, whereas in the UK we accept a little bit of failure. In the States, if you fail, you pick up your surfboard and get out of town.

NBC has just commissioned Superstars of Dance, can you tell us about this project?

It’s a dance Olympics. Simon Fuller was approached by NBC to come up with a dance concept and suggested that there might be something in an Olympic format and we sold it. We sold it so quickly that I had to give up my Christmas and New Year. It’s an entertainment show and a very simple format; you’ll see Irish Riverdancers versus the Shaolin Monks with the South African gumboot dancers. It will be produced by our new production company Big Red Two.

Do you think you’ll ever come back to the UK?

I’ll certainly come back to work in the UK. British TV is still one of the best in the world. I’m somewhat disenchanted with London, particularly with the weather and London itself. California is a wonderful place to work and those people that say it has no heart and soul obviously aren’t successful because its heart and soul are in the business.