'American Idol' and Kieran ready to dim the lights one last time

'American Idol': Best and worst moments
'American Idol': Best and worst moments

Every "American Idol" fan knows the four words that Ryan Seacrest says when it's time to eliminate a contestant.

"Kieran, dim the lights," he says, pointing a finger skyward. The spotlights drop and the studio turns mostly black with an eerie red glow.

"Here we go," Seacrest says, announcing the results to millions of viewers.

But none of those viewers know who Kieran is — which is just how a television lighting director likes it.

Kieran Healy has been with "Idol" since its very first episode in 2002. After the series finale on Thursday night, he'll be the one turning the lights off, concluding 14 years of groundbreaking television.

He has been thinking ahead to the finale, and "dreading it," he said in a recent interview with CNNMoney.

"When Ryan says 'Dim the lights' for the last time, I'll probably be quite choked up," Healy said. "I think it's going to be very emotional for him, and for me, and not just the two of us."

Seacrest agrees. Hosting "Idol" helped to make Seacrest one of the most famous broadcasters in the world. He has certain trademarks now — like "dim the lights" — that he has honed through hundreds of episodes.

healy american idol
Kieran Healy

"The moment of the results was always meant to build drama," Seacrest told CNNMoney. "The lighting cue was the perfect way to kick it off."

Seacrest recalled that it "happened organically."

"Live one night, I called out his name to set the tone and dim the lights, and from that night on, it became part of my vocabulary," he said.

Seacrest used to alternate between saying "Dim the lights, Kieran" and "Kieran, dim the lights." In recent years, he has settled on the latter version, with a dramatic pause after Healy's name.

Healy said the trademark line "started in the second year."

Related: Why I'm going to miss 'American Idol'

"I wanted to come up with a look that equated to tension — a tense moment — as to who was going to survive and who was going to go home. So I created a lighting look which basically dimmed all the lights on stage and created a mostly red feel." Dark patterns crisscross the faces of the contestants. All of the voting and lobbying leads up to these moments.

When Seacrest started calling out Kieran by name, "He seemed to get a kick out of it, and I certainly did," Healy said.

On the web, there are a trail of Google searches by viewers who want to know who the mysterious "Kieran" is.

Some viewers presume that Healy is a woman. He understands why: "It's an old Irish name. It sounds like Karen."

Others wonder if he is some sort of robot.

"People don't really know if it's a person, or it's just some kind of television parlance," Healy said.

But others have figured it out. One viewer, Jennifer Rivera, wrote to Seacrest on Facebook last month and recounted watching "Idol" in the hospital hours after giving birth. Her son, now 7, is also named Kieran.

"I sometimes wonder if the reason that name was so ingrained in my head was because I had heard it on Fox on American Idol for several years!" she wrote.

Rivera said she found Healy's biography online. It is quite a bio: He was once a roadie, a lighting designer and production manager for The Who. After touring all across the country, he worked on concerts in the early days of MTV, and he has credits on dozens of shows.

Related: 'American Idol' canceled after 15th season

Healy doesn't actually dim the lights; the job falls to board operator Harry Sangmeister. During the live broadcasts, Healy in the control room, right by the director, supervising Sangmeister and an entire crew of lighting staffers (operators, floor electricians, spotlight operators) via headsets.

He said the "dim the lights" moment is actually the easiest part of the show each week. "That's something we do every time," Healy said, "whereas the rest of the look of the show, most of it, changes. When it comes to the performances, we try to keep it as varied as possible."

Healy admires how "Idol" became a television phenomenon, but he also appreciates it for a more practical reason: it provided steady work for he and his crew members. During the first season, of course, "we had no idea it would continue on for many years."

He happily recounted how his lighting budget ballooned once "Idol" became a huge hit, estimating that he had "probably a third of the equipment that I use now. Or maybe even just a quarter."

"Idol" was typically a winter and early spring show. So Healy worked on other shows the rest of the year — most recently the hit NBC variety show "Little Big Shots."

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Healy called the end of the series "bittersweet" for personal as well as professional reasons.

"There's a lot of people" behind the scenes "who I've been seeing every year" for more than a decade, he said. For that reason above all others, he hopes "Idol" comes back someday.


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