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Q&A: Nigel Lythgoe and Tom Bergeron on the State of Reality TV

Nigel Lythgoe and Tom Bergeron have never worked together before, but they joke they keep bumping into each other in the hallways at work -- both dance shows record at the same studio. We caught up with the British judge of "So You Think You Can Dance" and charming host of "Dancing With the Stars" at the "DWTS" rehearsal studio -- and their rapport was instantaneous. Before long, plans were hatched for a spinoff "So You Think You Can Dance With the Stars." "It's like Batman and Superman in the same movie!," joked Bergeron.

Variety: What makes for a good reality show?
Lythgoe: Honesty.
Bergeron: I agree. In the case of "Dancing" being a live show, the camera is very unforgiving. If there's a dishonest emotion attempting to pass itself as sincerity, you'll be found out. Honesty is what will endear you to and connect you to the viewer.
Lythgoe: And I think the more that stars now are going on to be judges, it's tougher for them to be as honest as a Simon Cowell, for instance, who really didn't give a damn if you liked him or not. You weren't going to buy his records and you weren't going to go to his concerts. Now I think when some of the celebrities go out there, they're frightened they're going to lose fans.
Bergeron: I think that's true.
Lythgoe: None of your judges are worried about that. Len (Goodman) is always honest.
Bergeron: And Bruno (Tonioli), God knows what he's on.
Lythgoe: He's gotten more flamboyant!
Bergeron: I told him one time on the air, you're about one emotion away from living in Pixar.
Lythgoe: That's a great line.

Variety: What's your secret for your longevity, while other shows have come and gone?
Bergeron: For "Dancing," it's so much about the cast. It's so much about the people that you watch take that particular little journey of spray tanning and dancing. And this past season was a case where I think it all gelled.
Lythgoe: For mine, I think the fact that these are kids. Some of them have no other talent than what they show us on television. And especially in a time where the education system is pushing them into so much testing, where you fail at testing you feel a bit like a loser, and dance has become a staple diet for the American kids to latch onto and show their creativity. And I found that the kids that have not had formal training are much more creative. The kids that have had formal training, that are ballet dancers, are boxed in by the very nature of having been taught steps. Whereas the kids that haven't are just so free and creative.
Bergeron: And "Dancing" has on more than one occasion benefitted greatly by "So You Think You Can Dance."
Lythgoe: We're a little seed bed for you.
Bergeron: Which is why this is kind of nice, sitting together like this. Because there is a nice relationship between the shows.
Lythgoe: And I think it has changed the face of how America views dancing. All of a sudden the stars that went on there originally thought this is going to be cake. And nobody realizes how tough it is to be a dancer. And from my perspective, the kids have suddenly realized there's more to dancing than just popping your chest.

Variety: What's the hardest part of your jobs?
Bergeron: Waiting to do it again between seasons. Seriously. I'm never happier than when I can go on to that stage on a live TV show knowing that anything can happen. An Osmond faints, you go with it. This is going to be terrible for my next contract negotiation, but there's no real hard part to my job. I love it.
Lythgoe: Being live and not knowing what you're going to say until you see the kid dancing. And then realize that your mouth is a lot slower than your brain. And then the second hardest thing is sitting next to Mary Murphy. My ears bleed sometimes.
Bergeron: And our hearts for you.

Variety: What's the secret of being a good host?
Bergeron: I went to lunch with Josh Groban yesterday, who's going to be the host of "Rising Star." He had asked to get together for exactly the answer to that question. And I said really the answer is trust your gut. It's about being present, it's about being open. The moment you start getting tight or worrying, you're not going to be there. You'll miss it.
Lythgoe: In my job as executive producer, you're constantly trying to find hosts that do what Tom does so brilliantly. As well as being a good traffic cop and moving the show along, it's actually listening to what's happening. Tom does it really well and bounces off it. Ryan (Seacrest) does it. Cat (Deeley) does it. There are so many hosts that just move the show along and just know what their next line is, that don't listen to what's being said to them. And consequently don't ask the question that viewers at home want to know. And that's what their job is. You are being us.
Bergeron: Cat is particularly good at that, I think.
Lythgoe: It's amazing how many people say, "I did it because my grandmother gave me something special." Oh did she? So, what did she give you?

Variety: What do you think of the trend of celebrity judges?
Bergeron: You made a good point why it might be problematic.
Lythgoe: I think "The Voice" is a really good show. I think the round with the chairs is great. And you can't deny that it's successful. It's successful for me because of the judges. Blake (Shelton) and Adam (Levine) are absolutely fantastic. The show is almost turning more into their show when one will tweet out the other's telephone number and the other will bung out a truckload of crap on the other. We're forgetting what the program is about, which is the kids. You've got to be careful. When I did "American Idol" here, no one had heard of Simon Cowell. No one had heard of Randy Jackson. People thought Paula Abdul was past it. Bringing them together and seeing the chemistry and the magic that they created for those years we all realized that you don't need giant stars. Certainly when we put Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj together, big, big stars, both of them in their own right, and probably would have worked independently, did not work in any way shape or form together. I think it's about chemistry. I don't care if somebody's a big star or not. Are they a good judge? That's what it is for me, And are they entertaining? At the end of the day we're an entertainment show.
Bergeron: I think, too, the viewers don't like to told, whether they think this consciously or not, here's a big star. They like to think, we're going to make a star. In the way they did with Simon. In the way they did with Randy. Brought the stardom back to Paula, to use that as an example. There's a certain pride of ownership that viewers take when they latch onto something that hasn't been already dictated to them.

Variety: Can music competition shows come back?
Lythgoe: We are never going to be without music. Maya Rudolph just did a great variety show. Hopefully that's going to be successful. We should never forget that we are there to be entertained. We've got this label called reality, which I think stinks, to be frank. The minute you turn a camera on, reality flies out the window. Nobody's being real in front of a camera.
Bergeron: You're adjusting your makeup, just like in real life.

Variety: What have been your favorite moments?
Bergeron: How this one wrapped up will always be a favorite moment: Meryl (Davis) and Maks (Maksim Chmerkovskiy) winning. Maks has been on the show for 13 or more seasons and has always come close but never quite won. People hadn't had the chance to see parts of his personality that I had -- the gruff exterior with the marshmallow center that was very much in evidence. There was so much euphoria among the cast that he won for the first time, I was running around holding the trophy going, "Will somebody take this?" The trophy became absolutely immaterial. Not that it's any great shakes. But what it represents was secondary to just this communal joy and camaraderie.
Lythgoe: I think getting season two of "So You Think You Can Dance" was a favorite moment.
Bergeron: There's always that, yes!
Lythgoe: And that Fox allowed us to do very dark issues. We dealt with breast cancer. We dealt with addiction. We've always said dance replaces the word. It really can touch you.

Variety: What do you think of the rest of the reality landscape?
Lythgoe: I'm not thrilled with soft scripting, where you take a situation, rehearse it and then film it. I'm not a fan of that. I can understand why it's successful. Not for me.
Bergeron: I did, as a favor for a friend, an appearance on one of those cable reality shows. And I walked in and they said, can you do that again? And I said no, I can't do it again. That's how it happened. I guess I was really naive. You host a live show, there's no second take. You just do it.

Variety: Any regrets?
Lythgoe: Being fired from "American Idol." I don't think I've ever been fired before. I'm still waiting to find out why.
Bergeron: Can I ask you something? Having gone through that and seen what happened, how do you feel about it?
Lythgoe: The show was such an important part of my life, to be the creating executive producer, from when we first got a piece of paper, between Ken (Warwick) and myself, to then have somebody say thank you very much and goodbye. We didn't take it personally. They did pay us. But it was, it's my baby. You're taking my child away. Why would you do that? It was very tough. I couldn't watch it. I'm not proud of the fact that it's dropped down more this season. Because I think we need it as a platform for young talent. I still think it can be put right.

Variety: How would you fix it?
Lythgoe: They took all the humor out of it this year. They took the backstories out of it. So they made mistakes that can be rectified. Talent will save it.

Variety: Tom, you've hosted the Emmys before. Any advice for Seth Meyers?
Bergeron: Don't do it with a bunch of other people who have different styles and tempos. I have one producer who I'd warn him against.
Lythgoe: That was a disaster.
Bergeron: I've talked about trusting your gut. That was one time when I didn't. It was like herding cats. You've got different people, different ways of working. We were left without any support. It was doomed from the start. The only benefit was I happened to be writing a book at the time, and it gave me an ending.
Lythgoe: On paper, I would have said, yes, that could work. This looks good. But in reality, not one of you came over as good. And you're all giants.
Bergeron: The producer said, we're going to have a taped bit, where we have Simon and Carrie Ann (Inaba) judge you worthy of hosting the Emmys. And my response was, that doesn't make sense. The elephant in the room is, who are these reality people coming into our environment? If we're going to do something like that, it should be Hugh Laurie, Teri Hatcher -- people in episodic television who feel threatened by this encroachment of reality TV. That's the joke. We're the interlopers.
Lythgoe: Or swap jobs, and you go talk about "Dancing With the Stars" on Survivor island.
Bergeron: There you go. That's better than anything we got. Eight years too late!

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