Fox’s Darnell: Flat Is The New High

Calls American Idol a victory in a season with across the board ratings drops.
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Flat is the new up, conceded Fox alternative programming chief Mike Darnell, talking about American Idol's ability to essentially hold onto its audience in the second night of the show's new season, a victory versus its past performances and versus an industry whose ratings have been sliding in general.

Idol's Wednesday night overnight 18-49 rating was an 11.6, the same as the first night's. But Darnell says the time-period-adjusted rating was even higher, an 11.8, representing the first time in years the second night of the new seasons has actually beaten the premiere.

"To see it pick up from night to night for the first time in five years when generally it has gone down by 11% episode-to-episode, that is the first part of the story," says Darnell.

Last season, for instance, the second night was down by more than three rating points. That is the second part of the story. "In what has been two or three years of broadcast TV declines, here's a show doing 100% audience retention viewers from the same Wednesday last year, and 94% of 18-49's."

Darnell, president of alternative programming, said he thought the addition of the fourth judge--Kara DioGuardi, "the better ratio of good to bad," and an "extraordinary year for talent," were "for the most part" responsible for Idol's ability to retain that debut audience, saying he thought word of mouth about Tuesday's show helped.

Does he predict the show will avoid the midseason ratings fall-off off past seasons? "No predictions. What I am hoping is that we can keep to the percentage range we are relative to last year. I won't predict what the middle rounds are going to do because it is new to us to. We are changing the middle rounds [it is adding another Hollywood show and cutting one audition episode]. We're hoping that change leads to more audience retention, but we don't know that.

IS flat the new high, then? "I would say, for the biggest show on television, flat is the new high. That is OK to say. But let’s put it another way. We will have done a 29 share last night. No other TV series will crack a 20 share for the entire season," he predicted.

Fox has emphasized aspirational stories this year, and cut back on the weird contestants. "The whole point of making those creative changes was that the audience was telling us they wanted it." He conceded that Fox was "pulling heartstrings a little more." But the said that was only possible if "the talent and the story backs it up."

He also credited Fox's success to a "lack of apathy," which translates into Fox's willingness to tinker with a juggernaut. Lack of apathy plus teh addition of empathy? "We are playing up [the emotional] stories a little more," he says, "but we also are giving people a little less of the crazies, or if we give them the crazies, they are the more sincere type of crazies."

Darnell said the addition of DioGuardi is paying off by both being "individually entertaining" and adding to the "group dynamic."

Is Darnell concerned with the health of the industry as a whole when the rest of the networks combined only mustered a 6.8 share of audience. "A 1.5 or a 1.8, you are seeing a lot more of those ratings for everybody. We are littered with below-twos now where before we used to be."


UPFRONT: Flat Is the New Up

A bitter writers' strike, depressed ratings and a national recession aren't exactly getting TV executives—or ad buyers—in an upfront mood. With so few pilots, can networks outperform analysts' dour predictions?