In Depth

Return of ‘Idol’ a Win for Darnell

Fox Exec, Pleased With Ratings, Has Surprises in Store

Fox’s Mike Darnell is breathing again.

After months of nervous anticipation, the network’s president of alternative entertainment finally was able to relax—a bit—after successfully launching the eighth season of “American Idol” last week. Ratings were down a tad, but in an era of double-digit declines, most TV industry observers interpreted the results as a major victory for Mr. Darnell and Fox’s marketing team.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with TelevisionWeek deputy editor and columnist Josef Adalian, Mr. Darnell talks about the ratings, hints at surprises “Idol” has in store this season and reveals what he really thought about NBC’s much-maligned Rosie O’Donnell variety special.

An edited transcript of the Q&A follows.

TVWeek: So the eighth season of “American Idol” premiered to really good ratings. Thoughts on the launch?

Mr. Darnell: Overall it’s thrilling to see any show come back at these numbers. And for the biggest show on TV to do it is almost shocking in this environment. We worked our butts off to make some changes … and it seems to be having an impact. … And the difference between this show (and No. 2 series ‘Grey’s Anatomy’) is just amazing.

TVWeek: Do you think the current mood of the country played a role in how the show did?

Mr. Darnell: I’m not a big fan of the idea of the world at large affecting entertainment. I don’t think your tastes change in times of crisis. If you like hamburger, you like hamburger. But I do think there is a desire for comfort food right now, which is one reason CBS is doing well.

TVWeek: Talk about what you have done in advance of this season to make sure that the ratings remain as solid as possible.

Mr. Darnell: Well, we’ve done everything we can. Of course we added a fourth judge and we’re hoping that that changes the dynamic a bit, because what we’ve noticed with her is that she’s very good. She’s aggressive, she will fight with Simon, she’ll bond with Paula, she’ll fight with Paula, and what it’s doing is it’s taking the group dynamic and changing it. And I think the audience is ready for that.

They don’t say the same things over and over again, because she’s inserted a different voice and that just by itself has made it more–sort of new, and it really is working so far. We’re also going back to a raw feel. You know, maybe the show became a little too sterilized as far as, ‘Kid gets up, kid sings, kid walks off.’ Plus we’ll be doing more behind-the-scenes stuff with the kids, and they’re going to live in a house, so if anything–if sparks fly there, we’ll show some of that. We’re hoping to get more of who they are–more of the reality version, to be honest with you. It makes the show tick.

TVWeek: Can we expect surprises as the season goes along?

Mr. Darnell: Yeah. There’s a big surprise coming when we get to the top 12, but I can’t reveal it right now.

TVWeek: Will it change the way we think of “American Idol?”

Mr. Darnell: Well, it’s not going to change what you think of “American Idol” and we don’t want to do that. This show is, you know, a phenomenon. It’s American, it’s apple pie. We’re not changing the core of the show, but it is something that will be talked about and is something I think that has some element of controversy surrounding it.

TVWeek: Do the contestants know?

Mr. Darnell: No. No one knows.

TVWeek: Is that part of it? You want to keep the contestants guessing?

Mr. Darnell: Part of it. But I also think it’s more that it’s a long season and you want to keep as many surprises for the audience, for the press, for everybody, as you go along. Some controversies will pop out. But this is something that we sort of felt like, here’s one set of things we’re doing, we’re going to wait and give you the other set when we get to the final 12.

TVWeek: Is Kelly Clarkson—who has a big album coming out while you’re on the air—going to come back?

Mr. Darnell: I believe so. I believe you might see something actually in the next couple of weeks from Kelly.

TVWeek: What about guest stars for the Wednesday show? Will you look for younger artists to youth up the ratings?

Mr. Darnell: Not youth up. We’re going to big it up. (Musicians) will have to be ridiculously big this season for us to have them as mentors.

TVWeek: Every few years, people talk about reality being in a drought. That seems to be the case again now. Is reality in crisis?

Mr. Darnell: No. Look, here’s the thing. The key to what your question was is that every few years it’s the same question. And there’s a reason for that. This is a genre. Like all genres people like to imitate, but particularly in this genre. If (there’s) a big show and you make a little twist, sometimes you can have success. It’s a safe way to put something new on. Risk brings with it exactly that.

If you do something innovative and new, there’s a shot you’ll fail right away. There’s also a shot that it’ll take off. So every year, year and a half, something out of somewhere just comes out of nowhere and does a number. The goal is to come up with something that works, that’s new, but that isn’t so off the beam that no one’s going to come to it. That’s why I’m very excited about [variety show “The Osbournes: Loud and Dangerous”], to be honest, because it feels like, you know, you love them, you know them, but it’s a completely new conceit, period.

TVWeek: What else do you have in the hopper?

Mr. Darnell: There’s a couple things that are going on. I would say—I would call them in pilot stage right now. And two which I really like but until I see them done—and you know I’m like this, Joe—I’m very close-mouthed. I would rather not talk about something until it’s actually going on the air than even hint at it because my competitors are out there waiting—chomping at the bit, looking for anything. I honestly believe that the minute I say something, everybody’s on it, and I think it’s true of others, too. I mean, I listen.

TVWeek: Are there any producers or other executives at cable networks that you’re sort of admiring right now that you want to work with?

Mr. Darnell: Yeah, I like Cris Abrego’s stuff on VH1, and we’re actually looking at doing something together. I’m actually working on a pilot with him right now. I can’t talk about it. But I have to move him a little away from the stuff he’s doing there because I can’t compete with that stuff. You know, I love working with (Mark) Burnett. I love working with Rocket Science. I love working with Arthur Smith. You know, I’m doing a lot with Fremantle. I’d like to do something with Tom Foreman.

TVWeek: Let’s talk about “The Moment of Truth.” It premiered strongly, then trailed off. Kevin Reilly said you have 24 episodes on the shelf. Can you bring this show back?

Mr. Darnell: There’s not 24. I don’t know where that number came from. I think it’s more like maybe 16 or 17. … I think it’s going to come back and do well. The economic environment makes it a tough sell (to advertisers), in my opinion.

TVWeek: Is that becoming more of a problem? Advertiser resistance to reality?

Mr. Darnell: No, there’s always been (a problem). There are shows that are always going to be tougher than others on network television to sell. Period. I’ve been through that my entire career and that doesn’t mean you don’t do them. You do do them. The environment is a little worse right now, like it is for everything, because they can be—you know, there’s more picking and choosing going on.

TVWeek: “Secret Millionaire” was a positive show that did…

Mr. Darnell: Did well.

TVWeek: Will it be back? The producers seem to be hopeful that it will be.

Mr. Darnell: And so am I. It’s my hope and my belief that we’ll pick up more of those. It was a very—it was a great show. It surprised me, to be honest. It did better than I had imagined it would do.

TVWeek: Why is that?

Mr. Darnell: I think I’m not Mr. Aspirational, so those shows don’t hit me right in the forehead like some others do. And maybe a little bit of it is the times. I also think there’s an emotional arc to it, which is ... ridiculously emotional. You know, even I get a chill watching the final 15 minutes of the show, and that’s saying something.

TVWeek: What kind of show would you like to see on the air in the next year or two? Is there anything else that’s on your to-do list?

Mr. Darnell: It’s a good question. You know, I mean not just because I’m doing “The Osbournes,” (but) I’d like to see some sort of comedy show, whatever you want to call these things, because I think variety by itself is an outmoded term that really doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’d like to see something like that work. I’d like to see sort of a comedy hour, if you will. Something that doesn’t root itself in traditional reality but roots itself in sort of harkening back. And then ... I don’t know. It’s a tough question to answer. I think when I see it, I’ll know it. And then I’ll keep it to myself until it’s on the air.

TVWeek: Are there any shows your competitors have done lately that have made you wonder, “What were they thinking?”

Mr. Darnell: Rosie (O’Donnell’s variety special). That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on television, to be frank. It was really bad television. So I’m going to be honest. That was a “What were they thinking” to me. Live. Everything about it was a mistake.

TVWeek: There are new heads of reality at CBS, NBC and The CW. Any advice for the new guys?

Mr. Darnell: I would never give them advice … They have to do their own business in their own world in their own way. (But) I would say, look for something new and different, you know, and don’t be afraid of stuff. You know, I think that we all are guilty of leaning on the known and not going for the unknown. But I wish them well.