It is fitting that Nigel Lythgoe, the creative force behind American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, began his life in entertainment when he was a 10-year-old dancer. The president of 19 Television has built a worldwide empire around finding and nurturing today's newest singing and dancing superstars. No wonder he knows what it's like to start small and dream big.
Unlike some American Idol contestants, however, Lythgoe's high-stepping aspirations were not well received by his Liverpool-bred dad, and he was made to take up boxing to balance matters out.
“It was all very Billy Elliot,” he says, referring to the 2000 film. “I was a terrible boxer. I had my nose broken three times. I won one competition when the other guy slipped on his water bottle.”
Thankfully, he excelled at ballet and went on to college for drama and dance. He began dancing professionally at 17, touring Britain in a musical called The Merry Widow, for which he had to don powder-blue tights (“If anything, I looked a bit like Donald Duck without the head on,” he says).
From there, he moved on to become a member of the British singing/dancing troupe The Young Generation, where he met best friend and future producing partner, FremantleMedia's Ken Warwick, also a member of the group.
The group split after three years, and Lythgoe was hired by the BBC, first as a dancer and then a choreographer. Over the next several years, he choreographed more than 500 television shows, including The Muppets (“Really, my claim to fame as a choreographer was staging people whose hands were up puppets' backsides,” he jokes) and five performances of Royal Variety, a show for the queen.
From choreography, he made a logical leap to TV directing and then producing. His first taste of American TV came on a trip to the States in the early 1990s to scout out and buy the American Gladiators series for British TV. He became its producer/director in the U.K. and, after branching Gladiators into merchandising deals and several other international versions, he became Controller of Entertainment and Comedy at London World Television.
It was at LWT that Lythgoe bought a singing competition program called Popstars. When he couldn't find a judge to his liking, he sat in as one himself on the air, quickly becoming so well known for his toughness that U.K. audiences dubbed him “Nasty Nigel.” The gig led to his partnership with music mogul Simon Fuller, and future American Idol tough-guy judge Simon Cowell, on American Idol's U.K. inspiration, Pop Idol. The show premiered in 2001, pioneering the now-popular concept of viewer interactivity through phone voting.
Lythgoe joined Fuller's 19 Entertainment as chief executive of its television division in 2001 and came stateside to import Idol to the U.S. An executive at Fox, which airs the show, told him to pack only one suitcase—in America, it was explained, shows can get canceled rather quickly. The assessment was as off-key as a typical Idol audition: The series has become one of the biggest, most beloved TV success stories ever.
More than a talent show?
“No one anticipated that a television program could become a phenomenon because it's something that happens once in a lifetime,” he says. “But it's good to be honest and not turn it into a deity because at the end of the day it's a talent show, one that's been accepted by the world but that isn't anything other than that.”
Rabid fans might disagree. Now heading into its seventh season, Idol lures more than 100,000 singing hopefuls each year. Tuesday/Wednesday episodes last season averaged more than 30 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. Particularly rewarding to Lythgoe, the “Idol Gives Back” charity show in April raised more than $75 million for people in need in America and Africa, and won the series an Emmy.
In addition to having executive-produced all six seasons of Idol, Lythgoe co-created and has executive-produced So You Think You Can Dance, Fox's summer hit. Dance may be a smaller-scale show, but given Lythgoe's background, it has brought him no small measure of personal and professional satisfaction. Through Dance, Lythgoe and his team have also been able to mentor young performers in Los Angeles, and are in talks to expand the program to other cities such as New York andCincinnati.
On Oct. 19, Fox will premiere 19's newest talent search, The Next Great American Band. Twelve semifinalists will perform weekly in front of a live studio audience; the winner, picked by voters across America, will get a contract with 19 Recordings, the subsidiary that has signed all of the American Idol winners.
These projects have kept Lythgoe a very busy man since his move to the U.S. The success, however, has come with a price. Season two of Idol was immensely stressful; it arguably contributed to the heart attack Lythgoe suffered. In addition, he dealt with peritonitis and disc problems.
Thankfully, his health has improved, and Lythgoe has learned better to relax. He makes time when he can for playing golf, watching soccer on TV and spending time with his two sons, age 32 and 28, who both live in Los Angeles.
“With all due respect to Ryan Seacrest, Nigel is the hardest-working man in showbiz,” says So You Think You Can Dance judge Mary Murphy. “I love working with him because he's brilliant, fun and lives life to the fullest; a rare combination in stressed-out Hollywood.”
And if he has his say, Lythgoe will keep working hard for years to come. If he ever retires from TV, he says, he'd still find some way to stay involved in mentoring young talent—especially dancers. That, he says, is what keeps a hop in his step.
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