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Fox's Mike Darnell: Reality "Will Come Back"

Fox’s decision to sit Ellen DeGeneres at the American Idol judges’ table is a bold move designed to maintain the reality champ’s place on top of the TV world. And reality TV on the networks could use the good news, as the genre is in need of some fresh blood. Mike Darnell, President of Alternative Entertainment for Fox, spoke with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about DeGeneres and why the networks have had trouble coming up with new enduring reality hits in recent years. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Have you paid much attention to the reaction to Ellen so far?

So far the vast majority of reactions have been good. Any time you’re going to change the biggest TV show, you’re going to be controversial. She is the most well-liked, well-thought-of entertainer I know, so it’s an enormously big addition.

Ellen wasn’t part of auditions this season, but what about going forward?

Unfortunately that’s contractual at the moment, and I can’t talk about it. But remember she is off during the summer for the talk show.

How will you determine the success of the addition of Ellen?

I believe it’s already a successful idea, it got people talking like they have not been talking about any show in the off season. It cannot do anything but succeed.

Care to forecast how Idol might perform in the ratings in its 9th season?

No I never want to guess. I’m sure it will remain the number one show on television. But there are so many factors playing into this. Television, as you know, is going down in general. This show has avoided huge erosions, being down 7 or 8 percent where other shows such as CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives have gone down a 30-40% range. This show is resisting it greatly.

Idol continues to do well, but we haven’t seen any new big reality franchises come along in several years, and this summer nothing popped. How come?

Hell’s Kitchen and The Biggest Loser are pretty good franchises, but [the genre is] maturing. So you’ve got the reality genre that used to be where you could come up with any crazy idea and people would come. It’s a very cynical audience now. This summer they came back to everything they already liked and literally nothing new worked. There must have been 25, 30 shows on the networks. Unfortunately now we’re in the same ratio [of success] as scripted shows. What you said about reality shows [not popping in recent years] you can say about scripted. What was the last scripted hit? House.

I’d argue The Mentalist.

Let’s talk about demo, what we really care about. House does an 18 share, Mentalist does a 10. Mentalist is a success not a smash.

So as for reality?

Viewers are more picky and really want a great show and it’s hard to find one. Virtually everything has been picked through. And it’s cyclical. We had 5th Grader, but it didn’t last long. Some don’t keep going as long. Reality covers everything that’s not drama and comedy. We haven’t seen a good game show in awhile, maybe that’ll be the next thing. We haven’t seen a good relationship show in a while, maybe that’s the next thing. But [reality] will come back. It’s a matured genre.

So you’re not concerned that we haven’t seen any big reality hits in the last few years?

I’m not, because I think it’s not really true. It’s just how long they lasted. Deal or No Deal, 5th Grader, they were hits. I think it’s just how long they lasted. And now it’s lucky if we find one hit in any genre in a year, so you have to be realistic. You have to keep looking and eventually you’ll find one.

Idol is known for making stars. Ellen is a big star already, who is at the center of her own show every day. Do you have any concerns about her presence possibly overshadowing any of the other judges or even accidentally stealing the show?

No, because look, as you said she’s a huge star, incredibly likable and her heart is in this show. This didn’t take a lot of convincing. We had to cut a deal, but she was in love with it. Her tenor on it is she will sit down, be charming and witty and funny… she will fit in perfectly.

So the fact that she doesn’t have a career’s worth of music chops really isn’t the point here, I take it?

Not really. Again, she’s charming, she’s witty, she knows what it means to be an entertainer, she loves the show. She will share what she sees from her vantage point. The truth is we had three judges until the last year, there will still be three judges with incredible music business backgrounds.

Idol is one thing that really works in TV, but it is going into its 9th season. How much pressure do you feel when it comes to keeping up the ratings and the buzz and the prestige – and for this casting move to pay off in those respects?

The only pressure you feel is it’s incumbent. This is a phenomenon, it’s a phenomenon nobody has seen in the history of television. Going into its 9th season it’s 60% bigger than the next thing on TV. Our job is to protect it and do everything to make it work. To not be apathetic… To always have something new to look forward to in the show. This is a good injection to bring in something new. There’s not the ratings pressure so much as feeling [of having] a duty to take what will go down in history as probably one of -- if not the --  biggest shows of all time.

Do you still see lots of what you’d call Frankenstein pitches – pieces of successful shows stitched together?

Frankly we see a lot of that. But it’s been forever that very few original ideas come through the door. It’s always been that way.