"This is down and dirty. This is gritty country," said Nigel Lythgoe, an executive producer of CMT's Next Superstar along with his son, Simon Lythgoe. During an interview with CMT Insider, the elder Lythgoe emphasized that the new series, which premieres on Friday (April 8) at 9 p.m. ET/PT, covers new ground in reality TV.
"This isn't some show in Hollywood," he said. "This is going out to the people. This is going out to the biker bars. This is going to the military camps. This is going out into areas where they're going to have to work."
The Lythgoes are credited with launching the cultural phenomenon, American Idol, after overwhelming success with a similar program, Popstars, in the U.K. and Australia. The younger Lythgoe also produced CMT's singing competition, Can You Duet. In the new series, a group of hopeful singer-songwriters live together in a Nashville mansion and face numerous challenges to determine if they can foster a career based on more than just singing ability. Their star potential is considered by the public wherever they appear, from military bases to biker bars.
"It takes a lot to be a superstar," Simon Lythgoe said. "A lot of elements make up a superstar, and we're putting them to the test in these different genres with challenges. You've got to sell yourself to the public. Well, we set them on the streets of Broadway [in downtown Nashville] to make money for a charity, just to see how much money they would make in an hour. Those are the kind of challenges we're doing to basically build and teach a superstar."
"Grabbing hold of the best 10 contestants you could find was really important," Nigel Lythgoe said. "That they all bring something different is what I like about it. They're not all good singers. That's the fact of it. This isn't about the most talented singers you'll ever find on television, around the world or even in this country. This is about people who want to become superstars that have talent in order to do that. It doesn't mean they're great singers. I don't care about that. I care about great performers, great writers, people that put passion into it. These people have got that."
Simon Lythgoe noted, "It's gone far better than I hoped, to be honest with you. Every venue, every performance, has been outstanding. And in the end, America votes for their winner, so it's going to be a very interesting result."
Contestants will be eliminated as the series progresses, with two finalists competing for the title in the final episode. Veteran TV journalist Thea Andrews will host the show, while a variety of industry judges will weigh in throughout the series. Meanwhile, participants will give radio interviews, film music videos, collaborate with established songwriters, perform for an audience that's unfamiliar with their work and take a pop hit and make it country -- tasks that might be required of a rising star.
"This is about connecting with people," Nigel Lythgoe said. "This is about getting people to buy your record long after this television program is over because we see so many programs where kids will come on and be very talented and supported for the amount of time they are on that talent show, and then they disappear into the ether. We'd like to see these people continue with a career after this."
Asked what surprised them while filming the show, Simon Lythgoe replied, "The growth in our contestants, quite honestly. They have really blossomed. We've taken these raw talents and in every single episode, every single challenge, they get smarter. They get better vocally, performance-wise, interview-wise, writing. ... It's not just about the competition. We are teaching them as we go along. When they write a song, we partner them with the best that Nashville has to offer. The best that country music has to offer."
"I think the public are going to see people that they can believe in and [people] they can believe will keep the integrity of country music. I think that is very important," Nigel Lythgoe said. "There is integrity to country music that we don't want to lose. You know, this isn't just fun. This is following and respecting what has gone on in the past and moving it into the future."
Nigel Lythgoe also stated that he's been a country fan for a long time.
"Let me tell you what I learned on this, which I guess I've always known, but I've not really thought about," he said. "Willie Nelson isn't the greatest singer that we've ever seen. Bob Dylan isn't the greatest singer, but they both bring uniqueness. Some of the songs I've heard here are really tremendous. If you come with other forms of talent, people recognize that and want to support you."
He also noted that CMT's Next Superstar isn't about vocal prowess, like whether the singer is hitting a B-flat or a C-sharp or if they're pitchy.
"The music business isn't about that. You can always go in and make a record and have it perfectly on pitch. But when you are performing, it is about the passion that you perform with. I think that is a really important point that we forget on television sometimes. And that is something that I have learned on this. People are performing with passion -- and that's very important."
Meet the contestants and watch videos from CMT's Next Superstar.