Fourteen years go, American Idol launched as a summer series en route to becoming the biggest show on television. After a meteoric rise, peaking at more than 30 million Live+Same Day (and mostly live) viewers for both its Tuesday and Wednesday telecasts in Seasons 5 and 6, Idol‘s ratings started to slide. As the veteran series is heading into its two-night finale this week, I spoke with former longtime Fox reality chief Mike Darnell, who oversaw Idol for its first 12 seasons, about how the show came to be, pivotal moments including the first time he met judges Simon Cowell and Steven Tyler, and why Idol’s success will never be repeated. In a phone interview from the MIPTV market in Cannes, Darnell, currently head of unscripted for Warner Bros TV, also shared the story behind the the studio’s breakout reality show, NBC’s Little Big Shots — the most watched new series of the season — and addressed similarities to Bill Cosby’s Kids Say The Darndest Things.
DEADLINE: What is the real story of how American Idol got on the air. Did Elisabeth Murdoch really play a part in securing the green light as the legend goes?
DARNELL: After 9/11 hit there was this general feeling that people don’t want to watch reality now, the country is in a certain mood. And the sort of edict that had come down from the network was, we should be doing things that are aspirational, something that will rally the country. In, I want to say October, not long after 9/11, [American Idol creator] Simon Fuller came with Alix Hartley from CAA into my office and it was just me. I’d known Simon — first, of course, he’d done the Spice Girls, but I also knew that he had come in and pitched a show called S Club 7, which was sort of modern-day The Monkees. It was a scripted show that had a band in it, and it was doing very well in the UK. We thought about that briefly — that was probably a year before. So I had known him from that.
And he’d come in and he’d pitched what was to be American Idol. (The original), Pop Idol, had been picked up in the UK but it hadn’t aired yet. He shared with me this vision and he was very passionate about it. In his vision, for some reason, we’d see a male on a billboard and a female on a billboard and the country would be talking about it and it comes down to these two people. What it was basically, in my mind, was one long audition. I had watched with my wife both Pop Stars and Making The Band. With both of those shows, I liked the audition process — on both those shows sort of a band was created — and then we got to the episodes where we’re following the path of the band and living with the band. Then I got bored. My wife still watched it, but I was bored. [Pop Idol] was one long audition, and that really appealed to me.
So, I went right to (Fox Entertainment president) Gail [Berman] and said, I think we have something here, I think Simon’s vision is really clean and it feels like an aspirational show, the kind we’re looking for. She liked it, but after 9/11 there was sort of a mood in the company, there wasn’t a lot of money to spend on things. And so there was this next few months spent making a deal with CAA’s help, trying to figure out if we could get it paid for, or partially paid for — my recollection is, we were going after the Coca-Cola Company, which ended up being a sponsor. And while we were in those conversations the show started airing in England and did exceptionally well and was becoming a big, smash hit.
Now we would see that immediately, but not everybody was attuned to the UK stuff back then. Then there was a meeting, probably around spring of that year, maybe late winter and with everybody in it, including (News Corp. executive chairman) Rupert [Murdoch]. And there was this, we should be doing something big and what’s out there, and Idol came up. I said, the show is doing well in the UK and I really feel like this could be something exciting for us this summer. And he then talked to Lis. She came back and said, yes, this show is really big in the UK. She then went to [News Corp. COO Peter] Chernin and said, we should be doing this. What the phone call did was create a momentum where it was going to be a little show to where they were going to start to put big money and they got excited about it. So that Murdoch connection helped it to become a much bigger show at the network that we were going to really get behind. That’s the evolution.
DEADLINE: What was the turning point, the moment you knew Idol would be big?
DARNELL: There were two moments. Moment one, for me, was the first audition, which was at the Hollywood Athletic Club, in Hollywood; it was very small, we had very few people come out, maybe a couple hundred. That was the first time I had met Simon [Cowell]. I was at that audition with my co-workers and my wife, and this was the first time I experienced a bad audition. And it was so funny, my wife had to run out so she could laugh outside. If I remember correctly, Paula [Abdul] was upset and kind of crying because she did not realize how harsh it was going to be. And it was at that moment I thought, this is unique. Simon and his sensibility of being frank and honest with contestants instead of gentle, I’d never seen that before, and it was never on American television — including Pop Stars and Making The Band [which] were really sweet. I think that was moment one. And then, to be honest, moment two was when we got the first Idol ratings. I was shocked at how big it premiered.
DEADLINE: After peaking at 30+ million viewers in Season 5 and Season 6, Idol’s ratings have steadily declined with the exception of Season 10, which introduced Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges. How did that come about?
DARNELL: We always had J-Lo on the list but Steven Tyler was a real find — I’d seen 45 men probably. And I walked into my office and you know I have a piano in my office, and Steven Tyler was there, playing “Dream On,” and I used to wear my cowboy hats back then. And Steven Tyler turned around and looked at me and said, “You’re a freak.” I thought, this is a really interesting guy. And I knew, after 20 minutes with him, that he was going to fit in the show. I didn’t know how and I immediately ran to (chairman) Peter (Rice)’s office and told them, we’ve got one, this guy’s going to be great.
And so, briefly, for that season, 10, we actually came back up in the ratings, from Season 9, and that’s the last time the show came up. The real decline started Season 11 on and that partly was influenced by X-Factor coming on and The Voice coming on that same season. And I think that infiltrated the number and started the decline.
DEADLINE: Looking back, do you think there was anything that could have been done, even after you left, to prolong the show’s run?
DARNELL: I don’t really think so. You know, I would have done things a little differently. I think there was too quick of a response, to be quite frank, to critics and Twitter about, “Oh they don’t like harsh auditions,” and then the comedy is gone from the show. You remember reading for years, they don’t like the stories, so then, all of a sudden the show became just people singing. Now, they’ve come back on the stories and there’s humor from the judges, but that’s just the personal stuff. Once something that big starts to drop, I really believe it’s like the Titanic, there’s only so much bailing of water you can do and the momentum that drove it up is the same momentum that drives it down, unfortunately. And I honestly think this group did a very good job over the last three years. I like the judges and I think, particularly, this last year has been very strong, actually, both in talent and the production.
DEADLINE: Do you think it was time for the show to go?
DARNELL: I don’t know whether this was the right time, the 15th season, but nothing lasts forever. And this show was so big, it was so loved, that there’s really not much you can say other than it had an enormously successful ride. I feel, looking back in the annals of television, probably the biggest, longest ride of any show, ever, on television. I don’t know that there’s ever a right time but I think it was the right thing for Fox to do to give everybody a year to sort of say goodbye. I think that was important and nice for the crew and nice for everybody that works for the show and nice for the audience. And you know what? The numbers are still pretty good.
DEADLINE: What has been Idol’s impact on the reality genre in the U.S.?
DARNELL: Well, clearly it had an impact on almost every performance show that came after it. You know, we now look at three judges as just the most common thing on the planet — it was new when we did it. We now look at the interactivity as something that is part and parcel of everything — it was brand new when we did it, we only had phone numbers. To shift perspective, there was no iTunes, there was no iPhones, it was people on their phones feeling empowered for the first time. So, it had an enormous impact on that drama that dominates reality across the world, which is what we call shiny floor shows, from America’s Got Talent to, obviously, X-Factor to The Voice. And I think it had a bigger impact than just reality television: it is the last, great television show that will probably ever exist at that level, period, in America. I do not believe anything will approach the numbers of Idol. I just think there’s too many other forms of TV, you know, with Netflix and Internet and cable. I think there’s too much splintering now, so even a big hit is going to be half or a third of the numbers that Idol did.
DEADLINE: Will you watch the finale?
DARNELL: I’m actually going to the finale. We went a few weeks ago, I hadn’t been in three years, so we went a few weeks ago just to say goodbye to everybody, but it was not the finale, so that it wouldn’t be so anxious and sort of everybody’s going to be crazy at the finale. But after talking to everybody, I said I would go. I’m probably not going to sit in the audience, I’ll probably be behind the scenes somewhere.
DEADLINE: Let’s now talk about your hit new series Little Big Shots, which like Idol is a broad, family show unlike the edgy, controversial fare you were once known for. How did that come together?
DARNELL: OK, first of all, I’ve always been about just success and anything that works — whether it was the cooking stuff (Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares) and Idol or X-Factor. I still like my edgy stuff, but I’ll take anything that’s going to work and I could feel Little Big Shots was going to work. The history behind it was, almost from the first few weeks I got to Warner Bros. from Fox, I run three companies and one of those companies is Telepictures, which includes Ellen. We started watching the show closely; she’s a genius and that show is amazingly produced. But one of the things that was really operating was when she would have little kids who had a skill or a talent and she would bring them on and then she did these very, very funny interviews with them. You know, with Sophia Grace and Rosie, those types of things.
And then I noticed, not only was it working on the show but they were going viral very quickly with millions and millions of hits. And it wasn’t so much the skill as it was her interviews with them were funny, the comedy she was getting out of it. So, probably in the first two months I was there, I approached Ellen [DeGeneres] and I said, this is a great idea, I know I can sell a pilot. Ellen loved the idea but she runs an empire and really couldn’t commit to doing a primetime television series. So, I immediately set about, who else could do it? It’s a tough thing because you have to be really funny, really good with kids, really well-liked, have a warm presence about you, all the things that Ellen possessed. And so I talked to Ellen and her team about Steve Harvey. She loved him and loved the idea.
I approached Steve — it took me awhile. Eventually, we got to Steve, as soon as he said yes, I knew we had a hit. And to be quite frank, the first day of shooting, once in a while, you’re lucky to enough to have about half a dozen times in my career, where you know there’s a real magic to something. And I knew there was magic to this show. Something about the way he is with the kids. I was hoping I would get the same magic Ellen had, and we got it. It’s a different tone but it’s the same kind of magic.
DEADLINE: What do you think about the similarities between Little Big Shots and Bill Cosby’s Kids Say The Darndest Things?
DARNELL: There is absolutely an element; for me, was it was Kids Say The Darnedest Things meets a little bit of America’s Got Talent, and no one’s ever tried that before. I saw it work on Ellen’s show, and sometimes you just have a gut about things. I knew it was worth a try, it was just making sure of the right host. I don’t really want to comment on Mr. Cosby. But it certainly has a legacy, absolutely, from those shows.
DEADLINE: And are you thinking about franchising the show, any potential offshoots?
DARNELL: The answer is, not yet. It’s very, very quick, we’re still catching our breath. We’re concentrating on international at the moment. I’ve never been a part of something selling so quickly in the reality space. (Little Big Shots, which was the highest rated new U.S. reality premiere in 5 years, has set UK and Spanish versions ahead of Mip, with other sales pending.)
It feels great to have a hit. I think it’s great for the industry because, you see a lot of articles written in the last three or four years that oh, it’s almost impossible to get one these days, only the old reality stuff is working. This hopefully proves to the community that the right thing at the right time, it will just explode.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it’s been really hard to find a hit new reality concept in the past five years?
DARNELL: Well, there’s several things going on. One is the genre has matured. Ten years ago, any kind of crazy idea, you could at least get noticed or seen. The other thing is, the last 10 years, to be honest, every reality hit in America has come from a foreign territory. So, there’s been very little home grown. The last one before Little Big Shots was Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?, which I came up with, with Mark [Burnett]. And so, the dearth of material is because there’s been a dearth of material on a national scale. I’m in Cannes right now and we’re talking to other territories; it’s the same thing. There’s been no successful launches anywhere in the world. Utopia was a flop, Rising Star was a flop, everywhere. And so, there’s been a drop.
Also, I think it’s important to realize is that for every 10 sitcoms or dramas, you only get one shot at a reality show on network television now. If there’s a hundred failed dramas and comedies there’s maybe 10 chances for reality shows. So, now that the genre’s evened out on maturity, there’s a lot less opportunity on network television and that’s the truth. The older shows — Hell’s Kitchen, The Bachelor, Survivor and all those things — are doing fine and doing well. So, those shows take up a lot of space, and there’s not a lot of space for reality in general. I think that’s part of it.
DEADLINE: How has your life has changed since switching to the production side, and will you ever go back to a network?
DARNELL: I’m really enjoying my time at Warner Bros. When I was at Fox, I could only sell to Fox and I really wanted to expand my fingers out. And thanks to (WBTV president) Peter Roth — and by the way, I love him, I’m not just saying that, he’s the best boss that anybody can have — I’ve been burning to spread my fingers out and sell to cable and sell to network and sell to first-run, which has been really interesting, and there’s this huge digital space that I wasn’t expecting. So, honestly, it’s been great. I, of course, enjoyed my time at Fox, but it became a limiting thing, eventually. I wanted to try something new. The only way to answer this is I’m very happy where I’m at right now.