But in a way that makes one wonder why more shows don't put dancers in charge, it is the choreographer's sensibility that makes "American Idol" -- let alone "Dance" -- work, juggling tensions and building to crescendos in every episode and season.
If there is a simple explanation for what makes viewers stay with "American Idol" season after season, it is the spectacle of hidden tensions brought in the raw to the visible surface -- people brought to a place where they can realize their greatest dream, stardom, or have their worst insecurities confirmed. And then the show holds that moment.
"We always say 'light the blue touch paper,' " Lythgoe said, speaking in his office above the "American Idol" set several weeks before the "Green Mile" taping, "which nobody really understands in America because you're not really allowed fireworks, but in England we have bonfire night and the kids get fireworks and the blue touch paper is like the firework and it says on it 'Light blue touch paper: Stand back!' That's how we produce the show almost: Put elements in place that will bang up against each other. And then we stand back."
As for his earlier decision to pull out as producer of one other mega-event -- the Emmy Awards -- "I thought about it over the weekend," he said with a sigh. "I've got four more weeks of 'Idol' to produce. We just finished 'Idol Gives Back,' now we're already preparing for the finals at the Kodak. Plus we're shooting the first episodes of 'Dance.' And then there's the band show ... Can you understand why my marriage is breaking up?"
Even in the "Idol" hub of world-conquering superachievers, the nimble, unflappable Brit stands out. In 2003, he suffered a heart attack while toiling in the "Idol" editing bays -- and continued to work for two days.
Harvesting the drama
IT was the night that two contestants were to be eliminated from "Idol" after the amnesty granted during "Idol Gives Back" a week earlier. At 11 the previous night, Lythgoe received the most sought-after information in entertainment -- who would be leaving the show.
The results show is the true centerpiece of "Idol" stagecraft. Each week, the night after the performance show, Fox audiences return in still-dazzling numbers as the announcement of who lost the previous night's vote is unveiled over the longest hour of the contestants' lives.
"I say to them right at the beginning, 'I'm going to mess around with you in the results show,' " he said. "I'm there to cause friction. I am there to annoy people or make people laugh or amuse people. That's what the show is. We've got one hour to say, 'So and so, you're going home' so we've got to move and manipulate it as much as we can. I always go out and apologize afterwards."
A producer appeared in the doorway and soon after Lythgoe strolled into the chambre de secrets -- the room where departing candidates' farewell videos are edited. Unlike the open-door policy of the other bays, only three staffers are allowed in this room, and they discreetly waited until the door was closed before rolling tape. The identity of the fallen remains a secret until moments before airtime.
Noticeable throughout the day and across the production was a curious fact: Among people who must have some of the highest-pressure jobs in entertainment, there is a consistently pleasant tone in the air. One hears no screaming or lost tempers. The courtly Lythgoe doesn't fail to compliment the crew after every viewing or rehearsal. "If it ever, ever, ever feels like hard work," he explained, "I'll lose my entire team. They work every hour God sends, so they've got to enjoy it. But the stress levels here are enormous. We do two live shows a week. And my energy levels are hugely high, but I've got to give them out to everybody on the team, not just keep myself going."
ANOTHER shocking element of talking with Lythgoe is his constant and disarming non-defensiveness. In the world of high-stakes entertainment, where executives routinely pronounce themselves "thrilled" with catastrophic weekend grosses, Lythgoe's unapologetic honesty is almost jarring. Among the quotes from one day in his company:
* Of the 500 songs reviewed for "Idol's" songwriting competition by series creator Fuller, "I don't think he liked any of them."
* "It's only a game show. It's not really a ritual slaughter. It is only a television talent show."
* "The characters for me were better last year" although, he continues, "I think the voices are better this year."