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In the Audience at the "American Idol" Finale

By It's My Life on May 26, 2010 2:58 PM | No TrackBacks

"American Idol" and TV shows like it are considered "reality" programs. But how much is bona fide "real"? Are there things the cameras aren't showing us? Are we really seeing the truth of what's happening?

american-idol-logo.jpgFor the most part, yes...but with some interesting additions. IML was lucky enough to be among 7,000 "American Idol" fans at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles yesterday to watch the showdown between Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox. We kept a diary of our experience (mostly scribbling during commercial breaks) so we could share with you the full picture of what happens on a show like this, from the audience's point of view.

4:30pm: Okay, here we are! Everyone's super-psyched. No cell phones or cameras allowed in the theatre, so a lot of people who clearly didn't see the "No Phones! No Cameras!" message on their ticket have to use the special "cell phone check" service. The producers probably don't want someone's "Single Ladies" ringtone to interrupt the show. Oh, and they must own all legal rights to any photos taken, which is a bummer because we were hoping to take some pictures to post here. 

4:40pm: Settled into our seats near the back of the theatre, but right dead center. Twenty minutes until showtime (so it airs live at 8:00pm on the East Coast). The stage looks awesome! There are FIVE video screens and two towers with that endlessly spinning "Idol" logo. In front of us is a sound board with some video monitors, and in front of that is a giant crane with a camera attached to it. That must be how they get those sweeping shots of the audience. Above us near the ceiling hangs a giant "American Idol" sign. It looks heavy and we hope it doesn't fall.

It's fun to see the homemade signs and creative puns everyone comes up with: "America will LEE-d the Way"; "YELLEN 4 ELLEN". Every few minutes a cheer erupts from some part of the audience, which means a former Idol contestant has appeared in their seats (not too far behind us is Jason Castro from Season 7). We notice that there are a ton of families everywhere, with people a range of ages from little kids all the way up to grandparent-types. That's one of the coolest things about a show like "American Idol": it really is something the whole household can enjoy.

4:45pm: There's someone on stage now and he's talking to the crowd, pulling people up to dance with him. Everyone's clapping and cheering. Who is this guy? He's like, Ryan Seacrest, Jr. Turns out he's what they call a "fluffer" -- someone whose job it is to warm up the audience and generally keep them entertained while they're waiting. On a live show like this, things go fast but on some shows, like sitcoms, an audience has to sit through a lot of waiting and multiple takes and someone has to fill in the gaps. Turns out this guy is named Corey and he's clearly as much a longtime part of "Idol" as Simon Cowell. It must be weird for him to play such a big role in the show without the viewers knowing about it.

Corey introduces each of the judges, who come out with their own bodyguards to help them get through the audience to their chairs. Everyone goes crazy as Kara, then Randy, then Ellen, then Simon appear, waving at us. A disembodied voice somewhere announces that we have 2 minutes until we go live; that must be someone in the control room. We actually feel a little nervous! Corey gives us some instructions: "It will be totally dark and Ryan will do his intro, and when he says, 'This is American Idol,' the lights will come up and we want you all to go nuts, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down. Okay?"

Corey also addresses the people in the "Pit" -- that area between the judges and the stage full of people (Notice how they're all young and attractive? Hmmm.) who stand there and wave their arms a lot. Actually, we notice that the Pit has its own little manager, a woman in a headset perched on the stage in front of them, giving them direction.

5:00pm: The disembodied voice has been giving us updates every ten seconds. Now she's counting down: Ten, nine, eight...The lights go out. The intro segment plays on the video screens, and then there's Ryan, and we do what we're told. When the lights go up on the house, everyone stands up and goes nuts! This is so fun!

A few minutes later and here comes Lee to do his first song, "The Boxer." He sounds really good. Actually, he sounds better live than he does on TV.

Next comes Crystal to sing "Me and Bobby McGee." Chills.

When Simon's giving his comments to Crystal, a bunch of girls behind us shout out "WE LOVE YOU!" which is kind of rude, and actually confusing because we're not sure if they mean Crystal or Simon!

During the commercial break, Corey chats up the rest of the Top 12 who are sitting in one of the front rows. The disembodied voice counts us down from 45 seconds to being back on the air.

Here comes Lee to sing "Everybody Hurts". Oh, he's changed. He's Casual Lee now. While he's singing we see a choir sneak onto the steps behind him, and then they start singing. After he's done, the judges are giving him comments but we can barely hear them. When Kara's talking about how Lee sometimes "pulls back" while he's performing, the mom sitting next to me says, all serious, "But I love it when he pulls back!"

During this next commercial break, the judges are chatting with one another. Corey is walking around, handing out "Lee" t-shirts to members of the audience who jump and wave enough to get his attention. He's funny as he jokes with everyone. If you get up to go to the bathroom, you have to make it back before the break ends or you'll have to wait until the next one; you can't be walking to your seat when we're on the air. When the lights shine in our faces, we know we're back on the air and it's time to jump and scream again. We're getting good at this!

Crystal sings "Black Velvet". It's amusing to watch the two camera guys following her: One holding the camera, the other holding the camera cable. They're both in black and we're sure that the director edits everything so that you never see these guys, even though they're right next to Crystal. After she's done, she gets whisked off stage and during this commercial break, a bunch of string musicians are setting up. That means Lee must have something big going on for the final song...

The judges have been backstage during this break. They're ushered back in, each with their own bodyguard. Lee comes out. Now he's in a leather jacket! Rocker Lee! Then he sings "Beautiful Day" by U2 and we are so, so, so relieved that it's not another horrible sappy song.

During the next break, Crystal comes out and helps Corey throw t-shirts to people in the Pit. Then we're back on the air and she sings "Up On The Mountain" which is simply fantastic. We feel lucky to be able to see both these artists live at the beginning of their careers.

5:55pm: All too soon, the show is over. The original UK Pop Idol, Will Young, comes out to sing along to a great montage summing up the season. The rest of the Top 12 is brought on stage so that when the lights come up again, we see them surrounding Lee and Crystal. Ryan says goodbye. The disembodied voice tells us "We're out" and some people in the audience start getting up. We don't want to leave just yet...It was too cool! But eventually we go and on the way, we pass a booth selling "American Idol" merchandise. Really, this show was not much different than attending a concert, except for the whole "being live on national TV" thing.

The folks at "American Idol" have been doing this for many years now and obviously, they have the whole process down pat. They know how to put on a show that's for a live audience as well as a TV audience, and know how to make the live audience an important part of the show.

So in the end, we have to say that when you watch "American Idol," what you see is what you get. At least from the audience perspective...Maybe next time we'll get to be backstage and find out what REALLY happens there!


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