An American Idol audition primer, for those who still don’t understand how it works

While speculation continues about next year’s judging panels, American Idol 10‘s auditions are ongoing. This has caused some consternation among those who don’t understand how the auditions work, because how can we have auditions without judges? That response is ultimately testament to the power of editing; many people believe what they see on TV, apparently.

For those in the media, that seems particularly odd, considering how much news there was last year about the effect of Paula Abdul’s departure on the process. For instance, whoever writes Perez Hilton posted a particularly idiotic piece with lots of baffled question marks that asked “So who, may we ask, are these hopefuls all auditioning too???”

On Monday, here in L.A., TV critics asked questions of Fox chair Peter Rice and he seemed baffled that some critics didn’t understand the process: “Well, we’re handling [the auditions] in the way that we’ve always handled them,” he said in answer to a question about the impact of the judge selection process to the audition schedule. “So 16,000 people showed up in Nashville. 10,000 people showed up this weekend. The judges were never at those initial stadium calls, so that’s the same as we’ve always handled them, so that process has remained the same,” he said.

So, for the uninformed, and just to clear up any confusion, here is a simplified version of how the audition process works; follow links for more details:

  • Thousands of people line up at a venue. That line is not to see the judges; it is to be registered and acquire wristband to be admitted to the venue a few days later. However, producers start screening contestants even at this point, trying to figure out who might make good television.
  • Everyone with wristbands files into a stadium or other venue, and eventually sings in groups in front of crew members, like the producers, vocal coaches, and management company representatives. The goal, of course, is to stand out, good or bad. The people in the middle never make it through, but the freaks certainly do.
  • Those who make it through audition in front of the executive producers, and they stand in front of the same backdrop used when the judges finally show up. Sometimes, they’re asked to sing the same song, which allows for those montages of (frequently bad) singers attempting the same song. (That’s generated confusion because they often sing a different song in front of the judges.)
  • After the group has been narrowed from thousands to 100 or so, the judges show up. In earlier seasons, this was later in the week; last year, it was months later. The chosen few appear in front of the judges. By this point, those who remain are complete screw-ups, perhaps in costumes, or the really great contestants with stories and personalities. This is what we see on TV.
  • The editors combine footage from all of this into a single one- or two-hour episode that magically makes it look like you wait in a long line and show up in front of the judges, whoever they might be.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.