Monday, January 17, 2011

"Idol" Journalist Richard Rushfield: "It was really stunning just how much the show got lucky"

The first thing I said to Richard Rushfield when I had the opportunity to talk to him about his new book, “American Idol: The Untold Story,” was, “Thank you for writing this.”

“Idol” fans have needed a history of their show for a long time and there are very few people more qualified to write it than Rushfield, who I consider to be the dean of “Idol” writers. For first “The Los Angeles Times” and later “The Daily Beast,” Rushfield has chronicled the last few seasons from an insider’s point-of-view. And now he’s sharing that inside information with all of us.

But probably the main reason Rushfield is such a good person to write this book is that he is a true fan and it was that fact that got him through all of his work over the past year.

“‘Idol’ was a large part of my life. Then I had last year when it was my entire life. I had a year with no escape from ‘Idol.’ Thankfully my love for the show was strong enough. Everybody should get to live inside their favorite TV show for a year.”

So how did Rushfield get hooked on “Idol”? His first great moment came during the first season he covered in person, season six. “It was one interview I did with [executive producer] Nigel Lythgoe. He let me come along with him as he rehearsed the elimination show.” Rushfield marveled at just how choreographed the eliminations were. “Every week you thought you had outsmarted it. But he was ahead of what you were thinking.

“Seeing it put together is really something you take for granted. You think, it’s a singing contest. How hard can that be? But you see how hard it is. It could easily be very blah. It’s the brilliance of elevating it to that other level.”

Rushfield had enormous cooperation for his book from just about everyone behind the scenes, including the somewhat elusive “Idol” creator, Simon Fuller. Some of the most surprising revelations for him concerned the show’s origins. “I hadn’t explored that in depth,” he said. “There were so many small decisions that could easily have taken the show in a different direction.”

Some of those “small decisions” that Rushfield details include the fact that “Idol” originally intended to have four judges from the beginning. But the fourth judge had to cancel at the last minute. “It was really stunning just how much the show got lucky,” he said.

The best thing about writing the book for Rushfield was that he hasn’t been involved in all the rumor chasing that’s been going on as of late. “You have a lot of cooks in the ‘Idol’ kitchen. There are three companies producing, FremantleMedia, FOX and 19,” he said. “Every decision has become a major discussion. There are billions of dollars riding on getting this right. A lot of different people leak their side of things. It gets out as fait accompli when questions aren’t decided.”

And of course, there are a lot of opinions from the public as well, both viewers and non-viewers. Rushfield said some people have considered “Idol” the “downfall of civilization. People have criticized that I’m writing about it with all of the things going on in the world. But there is something special about it,” he said “It’s the last stand of the original generation of TV. The last gasp of family viewing. People should be much sadder for what comes after ‘Idol.””

So for those of us who love the show, what is it that keeps us tuning in? “It’s the American dream,” Rushfield said. “They go to Middle America [to find talent], then they bring them to Hollywood and offer them stardom, which in today’s society is the biggest prize there is. They create actual bona fide stars.

“Seeing people transformed into that and compete for that. It’s interesting and exciting. And they’re singing, so they’re able to put such passion and feeling into that performance. It’s a powerful spectacle,” he said.

In the book, Rushfield writes that the lightning that had made “Idol” such a success disappeared last season. So does he think it can strike again?

“I think that it’s really going to come down to do they have performers? If they focus on them and enhance instead of detract.” He said, “Over the years, they threw in twists that elevated the contestants’ struggle. But in recent years, those twists have distracted from the struggle. If they bring it back to the essential thing—as long as they can do that—it can go on forever.”

There is so much revealed in the book that I wondered if Rushfield is concerned about any kind of backlash. “My hope is that the ‘Idol’ folks see my appreciation. I go over the whole journey. And there have been good days and bad days for everyone involved,” he said. “There have been backstage shenanigans, love triangles and meltdowns—things that there are people who wouldn’t want them told,” he said.

But Rushfield is hoping that his affection for the show will shine through. “I love this show and that’s why I spent all those years covering it. Over three months I had to re-watch the hundreds of hours of episodes,” he said.

“Even when the season is not great TV, to be there and see what those kids go through. It’s a brutal thing to be an ‘Idol’ contestant,” Rushfield said. “How they find it in themselves, even on ‘Idol’s worst days is something I cherish seeing.”

“American Idol: The Untold Story” hits shelves Tuesday. You can read more about Rushfield at his website.

Photo Credit: Hyperion Books