In its second season on ABC since the show left Fox in 2015, "American Idol" has developed a more uplifting bent than in years past — and the energy was there at the Bellevue auditions on Friday.
If you remember the “American Idol” of years past — when judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul barely tempered Simon Cowell’s bitter critiques of contestants who couldn’t hit a single note, or when judge Steven Tyler complained that producers pushed him to be mean — you might be surprised to hear it described as a feel-good show.
“People need something uplifting,” said Katie Fennelly Watkins, senior supervising producer for “American Idol.” “We’ve been embracing that this past season.”
The show has been moving away from outright mockery of contestants — which you knew you shouldn’t but couldn’t help but laugh at — since Cowell left in 2011. “Idol” was recently acquired by ABC; after its final season aired on Fox in 2015, the world only had to undergo two “Idol”-less years before ABC’s version debuted in March of this year.
Now, even the early-round auditions that don’t end up being televised — like the open-call auditions held at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue on Friday — produce a lot less fodder for “Worst ‘American Idol’ Auditions” lists and a lot more of the heartwarming moments you’d expect from one of the highest-rating shows on a network run by Disney.
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But while Fox’s programming can be a bit racier than ABC’s — Fox’s “Family Guy” comes to mind — Fennelly Watkins said the shift is part of something greater than a simple network change.
“I think just in general, the world is a little bit of a different place from when the show first started,” Fennelly Watkins said. “Why not have a little positivity when you turn on the TV?”
Among the hopefuls at Friday’s auditions was 15-year-old Judith Rossi, who starts high school in Bremerton next week, is younger than the show itself and barely within “American Idol’s” 15- to 28-year-old age range. She sat with her mother among a sea of conference-room chairs, practicing her audition song: “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations.
“It sounds so cliché, but I was watching ‘American Idol’ and I was like ‘I wonder when auditions are gonna pop up?’ And so I looked it up, and we had two weeks to prepare,” Rossi said. “I’ve known this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. This is my dream, so I’m pretty excited.”
Just before noon, only five of the hundreds who sang at the Bellevue auditions — some of whom had been waiting in line since 4 a.m. — were chosen to move on. Producers judging the auditions try to soften the blow, offering advice about vocal projection and confidence alongside relatively encouraging and smiley rejections. But the hallways outside the large audition space were still dotted with jilted contestants dabbing tears from their eyes.
“For me, I want people to just come and be themselves and show me their true selves through their music,” said Fennelly Watkins, who is one of the producers who determines whether contestants will move forward. “A lot of times, people think we’re looking for something specific, but it’s really not anything that you can put your finger on. Do they light up a room when they walk in?”
A 17-year-old from Redmond, Kazmyn Zercher, certainly did — you could see her ukulele, cross necklace and bright-yellow shirt from across the room. Zercher was one of the few contestants whose efforts earned her the coveted blue ticket, indicating that she’ll move on to the next rounds of auditions, where producers will determine whether she has the voice and the story to earn her a spot in front of judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie.
“I don’t know what I want to do or how far I want to make it,” Zercher said. “But I’d love to just have the opportunity … People tell me all the time that they love my voice, so I’d love to like make an impact with it however I can.”