Are American Idol’s judges powerless, taking orders from producers?

Are Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Randy Jackson just doing the bidding of American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe? A theory and analysis of audition footage suggests that American Idol‘s judges no longer make their own decisions, instead looking to producers to tell them whether or not to send a contestant to Hollywood or not.

Sean Klitzner, who actually played the Ryan Seacrest role at the Disney attraction based on American Idol, has an incredible eye for detail: In the fall of 2011, he deconstructed an apparently staged Jersey Shore scene. In this new video, he points out something I’ve never noticed: the judges often look off-camera for a moment before making their decision about an auditioning contestant.

Klitzner starts by arguing that this proves “American Idol is fake” because “ever since the voice of truth Simon Cowell left the panel three years ago, the remaining judges have have been figuring out to slyly get the okay as to whether they are allowed to let someone through to Hollywood or not.” He suggests that “Nigel Lythgoe should be on the panel as a judge and the face” because Lythgoe is “seemingly making those decision” and “the judges aren’t the ones with any power.” In perhaps the most astute observation, Klitzner says that “the show didn’t have anyone on the judges panel who knew how to make a television show. Because of this, I question whether the aution process even has any legitimacy to it.”

Watch the footage: this is a compelling theory with some strong evidence. The footage is very clear.

As additional evidence, Klitzner cites the recent trend of the judges giving “four yesses at once,” since they all know what they’re supposed to do and just want to get it over with. In the weakest part of his argument, Klitzner suggests a moment that Seacrest brought an auditioner’s behind the scenes to congratulate her before the judges sent her through; however, it’s easy to imagine Seacrest just being tipped off that she was likely to make it through, or just being told to bring them back.

The huge problem with the theory that there are other reasons why the judges could look at Lythgoe or just look off camera. If you watch the footage thinking that they are getting yes or no cues, that holds up. But what if they’re looking to Lythgoe or other producers for a signal to wrap up their time with the contestant? Or what if someone’s prompting them to ask more questions?

Whatever is happening here, American Idol producers absolutely play a significant role in selecting contestants. While the show is still edited to suggest otherwise, they are filtered for days, often before the judging panel has even been selected. The judges often refer to notes about contestants, since they are briefed based on those prior audition rounds that never make it on TV. So regardless of what they are looking at, producers are already responsible for deciding who makes it and who doesn’t–and you can bet they have input when the judges are picking those who make it through Hollywood week.

Most of all, it’s hard to argue with Klitzner’s argument that the judges are “apathetic and bored,” and having no power would help to explain that, since they’re doing just two days of work in each city, never mind that three of the four are brand new at this job.

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.