Mike Darnell, president of alternative entertainment for Fox, is certain that when American Idol goes head-to-head with the Olympics this week in primetime, ratings for both juggernaut properties will feel the impact. But he's predictably bullish on recent addition Ellen DeGeneres, and wouldn't mind seeing his network add a certain red-haired late-night host elsewhere on the schedule. And speaking of new talent, he's staying out of the silly Howard Stern-to-Idol hype.
Darnell spoke with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about Idol-Olympics competition, what he thinks of Conan, and the Fox reality programming combo that could make the network “untouchable.” An edited transcript of the interview follows.
How is Ellen DeGeneres jelling with the rest of the cast?
You know, I have never been worried about this, but it's terrific. It's actually over our expectations. People were surprised—we weren't—but the audience and critics were, I think, surprised by how well she fit in and jelled with the cast. There was some skepticism about what will she say, how will she judge people, will she just be making jokes. Yes, she brings humor, but her judging, she has been terrific at it.
I understand there was some internal concern with Idol ratings during the audition phase. How relieved were you to see the strong Hollywood Week numbers once Ellen showed up?
I'm going to have to say there's been absolutely no worries about audition phase ratings. Zero. I don't know where that's coming from. Live-plus-seven ratings will come in, and we'll maybe be 2% off. We're thrilled. That they're barely eroding at all this year is fantastic. The Ellen boost for Hollywood Week is fantastic. Because of all the talk about Ellen, Simon leaving, we have a lot of buzz this year that we didn't have last year.
How do you expect the Olympics to impact Idol?
I suspect that there will be some impact. I don't know how widely viewed the Olympics will be this time around. But it is in North America, so it will be live in some places. It would be silly not to expect some impact in some way. Some will depend on what event is on. Obviously, things like women's figure skating are very popular. If they ever put curling against us, maybe we'll do OK.
So, now you are looking for a new judge for next season, since Simon is moving on to X Factor. When do you expect to have someone in place?
I have no idea what the timing is, and who and what is going to be determined by finding the right person. We're not going to replace Simon; that's impossible.
We have to ask: Are you in talks with Howard Stern to join American Idol?
No comment at all.
What do you think of Conan O'Brien—not as an Idol judge, as a talent?
I think you should talk to the late-night people about Conan or about Conan coming to Fox. But I think he's terrific. I have nothing but positive things to say about Conan. He's funny, he's unique.
If your network snagged him, would you want to use him at all in your world, specials and such?
I have not thought about that, to be frank. Let's see what happens. I think we need to see what happens with his future plans and then maybe I can think about it. But he's terrific.
I know it's a ways out, debuting in fall 2011, but how is development of X Factor coming along? How close are you to signing up judges forthat, and when is the actual competition slated to begin?
We're really early on. So, other than announcing and knowing when it's going to come on, we haven't done much else. It's still more than a year and a half away. I don't have any timing on that yet.
Is it still the plan to be in originals with talent competitions year-round, with So You Think You Can Dance? in summer, X Factor in fall and Idol in January?
Yes, Dance will be on this summer. Obviously, this year we won't have X Factor yet. But if everything works out, with Dance in summer, X Factor in fall and Idol in January—if all those shows were operating—we would be untouchable as a network.
You had high hopes for Our Little Genius, which was going to get a post-American Idol time slot. But then executive producer Mark Burnett asked that it not be aired after he discovered a problem with the way the information in the contest was handled. Is that going to wind up on the air?
We're working on it. That's the plan and hope; I know Mark wants to do it. This is a re-shoot. I hope it can come back. It is still in discussions. It's a great show, very adorable. It's everything you think it is.