We’ve now had our first look at the new judges for American Idol season 12. Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes when the cameras aren’t looking? If so, then I recommend reading Elimination Night, a new fiction book based on season 10 — the first year that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined the panel — and written by an anonymous author with firsthand knowledge of what goes on backstage at a singing competition show.

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The protagonist in Elimination Night is Sasha King, an assistant producer who works on Project Icon, a singing competition program on the verge of cancellation. Judge Nigel Crowther has left to start up his own rival show. (Simon Cowell and X Factor, anyone?) To try to breathe new life into Icon, they hire Bibi Vasquez and Joey Lovecraft, and these new judges have characteristics, personalities and fashion choices very similar to Idol‘s own Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The similarities don’t end there, yet it must be pointed out that this is a work of fiction and not everything should be construed as happening in real life.

If you put two and two together, many might say that he or she works at American Idol. But in BuddyTV’s exclusive interview, the author is unable to confirm or deny this assumption. And while he or she (the author’s gender is also unknown) couldn’t tell us that, we did talk about producer manipulation, contracts that contestants must sign and the Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj blowup heard ’round the world last fall.

Why write Elimination Night?

I probably shouldn’t have. But I couldn’t resist.

Anyone who has read the book or even the synopsis for it will say that Elimination Night is based on season 10 of American Idol. And many of the characters seem inspired by the real life cast and crew: Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Nigel Lythgoe, etc. Why make it so obvious, or was that the point?

Well, it’s hard to avoid similarities with American Idol if you’re writing a novel about a top-rated TV singing competition that’s beginning to implode as its audience declines … but really, the book takes inspiration from a lot of different reality shows and celebrities — and hopefully when people read Elimination Night from start to finish, it’ll be very clear that the characters have identities of their own. Some reviewers have compared the fictional judge Joey Lovecraft with Steven Tyler, for example, but that’s really not fair to Joey, who’s had a hard enough time being mistaken for Mick Jagger his whole life. There’s only one Joey Lovecraft. Give the guy a break.

Is there really as much manipulation behind the scenes on these singing competition shows as you write about in the novel?

Everything in the book is fiction. At the same time, it’s inspired by real things that do go on behind-the-scenes. Honestly, it would blow your mind.

There are three main singing competition shows now: American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice. When you watch any of them, can you spot any manipulation easily, based on your experience?

The people who edit these shows are very good at their jobs, so when it comes to misleading timelines and the like — i.e. what exactly was shot when during the auditions rounds — it’s very hard to precisely tell what’s been tampered with and what hasn’t, unless you were there. For example, in Elimination Night, the judges arrive at one of the audition hotels in a gleaming motorcade of limos, even though they’re all actually staying at the same hotel. They could have simply taken the elevator, but that wouldn’t have looked as good for the cameras, so instead they leave the building, drive around the block and come back again. As a general rule, the producers of reality shows are always looking to create drama in every situation, more often than not by stirring up conflict between the people on the screen. So in that sense, yes, the manipulations are obvious to me.

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Do you think audiences are aware that all this goes on behind-the-scenes, but still watch and participate anyway?

It really depends what you mean by ‘manipulations.’ I mean, if we all knew that the winners of X Factor or Idol were decided in advance, then I’m sure we’d all tune out. But while the producers can influence these shows — by playing mind-games with the contestants, for example, or managing the audience’s expectations, only to pull a surprise on them at the last minute — there’s still a huge amount of unpredictability, because they’re populated by real human beings. It’s that, plus the intrigue of speculating about what’s rigged and what isn’t — and what’s kept off-camera for other reasons — that makes reality TV such a hugely entertaining spectator sport.

During the auditions in Elimination Night, there are secret codes stamped on the contestants’ tickets: N for yes, X for maybe, a Y for no but the kid is a crier or psycho so roll the cameras and a star in the top right corner if they have a good gimmick. This received a lot of attention in the novel’s early coverage. Does this really happen?

There are so many contestants to get through in the audition rounds of any reality show, of course the producers have to have a system by which they can keep track of the ones who will make the best TV (for whatever reason that might be). Is it an ‘N’ for yes, an ‘X’ for maybe, etc., and is their reasoning in real life as brutal as I describe in the novel? All I can say is this: Elimination Night is a work of fiction.

There’s a chapter in Elimination Night that covers the moment that contestants have to sign their contracts with Project Icon, with some pretty extreme clauses: producers may inflict libel … or distress on me. Can you talk at all about the actual contracts that contestants must agree to? Are any of them hesitant to sign on the dotted line, as Jimmy Nugget’s father is in the book?

I’m pretty sure there have been some disgruntled former reality show contestants over the years who’ve actually posted their contracts online; you can Google them if you want to get the real deal, rather than my fictionalized version. Obviously, though, the lawyers who write these things want to reduce the probability of their clients (ie, the makers of these reality shows) being sued to as close to zero as humanly possible, which often results in some pretty extreme and ridiculous-sounding clauses. It’s the same in all kinds of showbiz.

Finally, what do you make of the American Idol season 12 panel, with the additions of Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban? There’s talk of tension between Mariah and Nicki, with even a video coming out showing a supposed blowup between the two. Real or not?

Oh my God, yes. In fact, it’s probably a thousand times more insane and petty and ridiculous than we can even begin to imagine. Bear in mind there will almost certainly have been months of jostling and one-upmanship during the judges’ contract negotiations before they even started work on season 12, heightening any pre-existing resentments or insecurities. Add into the mix the fragile nature of these highly ambitious and creative personalities, and I seriously doubt Idol has to fake the meltdowns and blow-ups. Trust me, they’re going to happen; the producers have just got to figure out a way to capture them. Or contain them, if they get out of hand.

American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.

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(Image courtesy of New Harvest)

Jeff Dodge

Staff Writer, BuddyTV

Jeff Dodge, a graduate of Western Washington University, has been a TV news editor for many years and has had the chance to interview multiple reality show stars, including Randy Jackson, Nick Cannon, Heidi Klum, Mel B and John Cena.