03/20/2007 10:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Idol Rules America: A Backstage Report

The tickets are huge - about eight inches long and three inches wide - and are covered in the shiny red foil, sort of like Super Bowl tickets, only without the holograms. I was surprised. And I was even more surprised when someone handed me a set last week and asked if I wanted to go. My wife has a PhD in American Idol and I started watching in the last few years just to get some family time. That's when I realized there's a reason it's what Jeff Zucker recently called "the most impactful show in television history."

Getting into the CBS studios is not easy, which is demonstrated by the hordes of people wandering around the chainlink fence trying to find a way in. And most of these people were dolled up, wearing high heels and stage makeup that was a combination of Little Whore House in Texas meets Rocky Horror Picture Show. My first impression of the show was that even the people in the audience thought they were on the verge of being discovered. Looking for cleavage in America: You can find it among the 350 people who made it through those gates, gave up their cell phones and Blackberries to security, and piled into the bleachers of the sound stage.


That's what's on the front of the ticket, along with the assigned seats; the back contains five paragraphs of disclaimers about how you, in fact, might be discovered, your face might be on television, and you're not allowed to even tell anybody if you get hurt or injured, no less sue one of six delineated companies.

The room itself is not a sound stage, per se, but one area of a sound stage closed off with black curtains. The set itself is enormous, and takes up about 60% of the space, with the audience crammed into the rest. The audience was quiet at first, polite, and surprisingly mixed, with kids and many grandmothers. The couple next to me had gotten tickets from the warm-up act and announced that they were from North Carolina in a voice that gave no doubt. They had never seen the show. They had waited in line that morning for a taping of The Price is Right and were disappointed when the show was canceled, so they had spent most of their day at CBS Studios.

Sitting in the back row, I was eye-level with the stage and was told by no fewer than six people that a boom camera, one of those ones that swoops down and makes TV look so dramatic, would be grazing the top of my head in the opening shot. I should not jump up and down. Also, I was alongside the monitor with the crib sheet of all the songs, so I should not stand in front of it. And I was immediately in front of the close-up camera, so I should not eclipse it. Lots of studious pages in headsets people told me this. Forget American Idol as a model of voter participation; the teacher-pupil ratio is out of this world.

"Welcome to American Idol, the #1 Show in the World!" About 15 minutes before the show, a young, athletic white rapper who looked like he could have been doing tumbling at Disney World began the warm-up act - teaching us all how to clap in unison, squeal with delight when we see the judges, and, most importantly, gasp with horror when one of the candidates was eliminated. He emphasized this a lot. "We wants lots of emotion. Noise is a good thing. Some of you may begin to cry." He then asked us how many people had watched the previous night (nearly everyone), and how many had voted the previous night (less than half). "Let's try that again," he said, "and remember, this is Hollywood, it's okay to lie."

At about five minutes before air time, he introduced the band and then the judges, one by one, were called from offstage to assume their seats. Randy came first, snaking through the crowd, giving high-fives to everyone. Simon came next and walked straight to his seat. Paula came last, dancing though the crowd and again giving high-fives. All three were trailed every step by bodyguards, and every time they went to greet an old friend or colleague or stage manager, the bodyguard followed them wherever they went. Before sitting down, Paula removed her belt. I thought for a second she might not stop there.

Ryan Seacrest arrived with very tight pants and very spiky shoes. In person, his dark blue suit and purple tie looked more like a costume than actual clothes people wear, but when I later watched on the monitor, they looked natural. Objects in the mirror are closer to normal than they appear.

About 30 seconds before the show went live, machines filled the stage with artificial smoke and then there was Ryan, standing a few feet in front of us, staring into the boom mike, announcing the "cold open." The boom didn't hit my head, but as soon as Ryan bolted for the stage a cameraman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me not to stand up the rest of the show. This was surprisingly hard to do as the stage managers and warm-up singer kept bouncing around the audience cajoling us all to get to our feet. Luckily I didn't have a sign, like the one in front of me that said, "ROSS IS THE BOSS."

Speaking of which: Ryan worked through the usual results show business of declaring people safe or unsafe, calling the bottom three to the center of the stage, etc. In the middle of this process, they cleared the stage for a commercial and a performance by Diana Ross. The huge TV screen in the center of the stage parted and there was The Diva herself, lit from behind, with huge trailing feather boa, and sparkling red-lipstick red dress. With all the parting, the sea of lights, and the waves of red, I thought Moses himself might step out from the lights. The entrance was masterful, fit for an Empress. (To watch of clip of Ross's biblical performance, click here.) My father, not a watcher of American Idol, recently asked my wife why so many people enjoy it. One answer can be found in this moment. Whatever else you think of the show, it is spectacularly well produced. In just half an hour, they hit every emotional note imaginable - from drama, to tension, to grandeur, to all-American cuddliness, like when DR at the end of her song said that these singers were inspiring young people across America. I used to be in the circus and marveled at how show people know how to string out routines for maximum impact. Barnum could only drool at American Idol, the Greatest Show in Show Business.

And of course it is a business. Producers were everywhere on the set, micro-managing every gesture and step. It was very striking, and impressive. And when Brandon, a cheery background singer who flubbed his words the previous night, got booted off, he didn't even have time to sing his farewell song. (To watch Brandon get booted off while audience "gasps in horror," click here.) But the cameras kept rolling and they took the footage for repurposing later. Everybody hung around for a while after the show ended, not wanting to leave the lights. The stage was full at this point and the audience didn't know what to do. Somehow this expectation lingered in the air that on a show that's all about finding unknown talent next door and having everyone vote was going to invite us all over for the after-party. Then the stage manager came over the loud speaker system and declared, matter of factly, "Audience, go home." So much for all those sweet-nothings about how we were the best audience ever. Our time had passed. We were not American Idols. We were Brandons. We all slumped out of the studio, reclaimed our cell phones, without even a picture to prove we had stood, for a moment, on the other end of the rainbow and "made some noise" in the Kingdom of Oz.