The official start of the fall season is still two weeks off, but this Wednesday brings the return of the revamped X Factor, with new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, and a new fall competitor in NBC's The Voice. Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative programming, spoke with B&C programming editor Andrea Morabito about the upcoming season and addressed the continued speculation on who will fill those American Idol judges chairs alongside Mariah Carey. An edited transcript follows.
Obviously you felt that The X Factor wasn't as good as it could have been in its first season, which is why you overhauled the judges panel. What does it have to do, ratings-wise, to be considered an improvement in season two?
Part of X Factor's DNA is to make changes in the judges. If you look at the English version, there's been many, many changes of judges over the years. I think the show has got a very different complexion than last year and it's very good, very well done. I think there's an improvement in the pacing of the show, the way the show pulls out and all that stuff and I think the judges have given us a little more youth and that angle of youth and I think that is important. Ratings, I'm not even going to go there. I have no expectations at the moment, just that it will do well.
Does "well" for you mean better than last year, or would holding steady be seen as success?
If the chemistry improves and people love the show, then that's great. If it's successful in the ratings, we'll be thrilled. It takes up 40 hours of our schedule. Those numbers last year were terrific. It [fell short of] Simon's prediction, but still fantastic on any other scale.
How would you describe what Britney and Demi are bringing to The X Factor judges' panel?
Let's start with Demi, who is fantastic and very funny and for 19, ridiculously mature. What she brings is she's raw, she's straightforward and I think for both of the young judges, there's a relationship that Demi and Britney bring to the talent that the older judges don't and that has to do with a young experience. These young kids, boys and girls, it's not just that they idolize this talent, they relate to these two girls. Demi is great with Simon [Cowell]. Not since Paula [Abdul] has there been that kind of relationship. She calls him Grandpa if she's mad at him. He loves it; he gets along with her.
And Britney is just smart, really learned very quickly and this is a tougher job than it looks like. And I think the interesting thing about Britney is that the middle-of-the-road people, she didn't have that much to say. The good people, she's excellent, and the people who are bad, she's a tough judge. She can be pretty tough, like curt I would say at times, and I wasn't expecting that. Not that she's not nice, she is nice, but she also can be pretty tough too.
Are you expecting the show to get younger with the addition of Britney and Demi?
Not necessarily. But it does have a younger feel. And we added this reality component, which is harder to describe than to look at. But that component, which you will notice when you watch it, it really has to do with the way the storytelling is being done, through the eyes of the contestants. It is possible we will have no hosts until we go live. It's all being done though the reality of the contestants and sort of their vision of the show. Because it's sort of a newer technique, it also makes the show feel a little younger.
When will you announce the hosts?
We don't know.
Will we know before the season premiere?
No, absolutely not.
Are there going to be other editorial changes besides the reality storytelling component?
That's one of the major differences. The others I kind of want to keep it quiet for now.
There is this unknown factor with The Voice being in the fall for the first time. You can't say The Voice was the single reason Idol softened in the ratings last season, but it certainly didn't help. Is X Factor, as a newer show, more or less vulnerable to the increased competition than Idol?
That's an interesting question, the way you phrased it. All the shows are hurting all the shows. As is the way of television, when something's very successful, a glut of them come on the air. And eventually that glut tends to hurt everything. I don't know what The Voice is going to launch at, but my guess is that The Voice will be hurt by all the glut too. If you notice, The Voice is on a very downward trajectory in its run. I think that part of that is there are a lot of these shows on the air, and that [affects] all of them.
It's been reported that Randy Jackson will transition from a judge to a mentor on Idol this season.
Nothing's been decided yet.
Does that affect Jimmy Iovine's role on the show? Is there room for multiple mentors?
I wish I could tell you anything, but right now, we're just not at a point where we can talk about it.
Can you confirm that Nigel Lythgoe will return as executive producer?
He's back on the show.
It's been reported that Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban are close to deals with Idol. Can you comment on that?
I can't yet.
What kind of personalities are you looking for to complement Mariah Carey?
She's an icon. She is the best singer I think to ever appear on one of these shows as a judge. We have our icon, I guess that's how I look at it. And now we'd like to get diverse. We are looking at some country, we are looking at different types of music. I guess that's the best way to put it, a diversity of music and a diversity of personality. Something to make the panel feel like each person has something different to offer, both in who they are and what kind of music they represent.
Do you have an ideal number of judges?
We don't know yet.
With shows seeming to be more open to refreshing the judging panels as much as every year, does that change the way you can recruit talent? Does it make it easier to sell someone on one season?
That's a good question. It's so new that I don't know whether it's making getting talent easier or more difficult. Right now, there does seem to be a pattern of change is healthy for the shows. How much change, we just don't know yet. A couple of years ago, it was more difficult to get people interested of a certain caliber to do these shows, they were nervous about what the show would mean to them. Now, everybody seems interested. These shows have proven they don't hurt your career; they can really enhance your career.
Have you gotten a chance to talk to Thom Beers yet, since he's been appointed head of FremantleMedia North America? What's he going to bring to that job?
I know him, we've met many times. I've talked to him, since he got the job, to congratulate him. He's a very, very talented producer and a really creative guy and I think he's going to be great in that job. But other than that, I don't know, I haven't really thought about it yet. We've never done a show together, he's mostly done cable.
What's the next reality genre for Fox?
I wish I knew the answer to that. What you learn is that no genre is dead. That right when you think it is dead is when someone comes out with something in the genre. People like these shows. These forms have been around since the beginning of television. They love the forms, they get tired of them if you do too many. But they're just waiting for the next big one to come. The vision really is just to keep plugging away at stuff that is dormant until we find one that works.
The other thing is if you can find a personality, like a Simon or a Gordon [Ramsay], it is easier to build shows around them than create something brand new because they're compelling. Just like on dramas or comedies, if you've got a compelling character/performer, it can really help sell the show.
It had been a pretty soft summer for new reality show launches until Hotel Hell, which is the only series to be picked up for a second season so far. Why did that show work while others failed?
First of all, Gordon is an amazing personality, we've established that over the last seven or eight years. So I had something going for me already on that show which is Gordon, a known commodity to the audience. And then this was another thing that worked for him, sort of Kitchen Nightmares in these hotels. I think there was a familiarity and I think that he's just so damn compelling that people love them and his fan base is very solid. So it was probably the safest bet of the summer and it worked.
NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy recently said he's jealous of Ramsay, that you can pretty much put him in any show and people will watch. Is it safe to assume you are already at work developing his next project?
If we did one, it would be his fifth project. That's unprecedented. I did not read that but that's nice. Let's put it this way: If Gordon has any other ideas, we will do them.
Why do you think reality ratings have been down across the board this summer?
A combination of age of the product that is on. Bachelor or Bachelor Pad, have been on for a long, long time now. They're a decade old. [America's] Got Talent is in its eighth or ninth season. I think that these shows are maturing, and as they're maturing during the season, they're also maturing during the summer. So age is one thing. And then you know, I'm going to be honest with you and tell you that this sort of -"hey the shows have been really soft this summer, the new shows"-new show launches in summer have been soft for the last five years. So I don't know where this new thing is coming from. If you look back on the last five years of summer launches, I think the last success was Wipeout. And other than that-and I am not exaggerating-there's probably been 80 or 90 reality show failures over the summer. So this is nothing new. The networks have a tendency-other than us, we do very few launches in the summer, maybe one or two and that's it-whereas the other networks will do five or six launches in the summer. If you do that many, you're bound to have failure. There has been an enormous amount of summer launches and failures over the last five years, so this sort of invented notion that this year is particularly soft, that is just not true.
Do networks then have to start reevaluating their strategies? Is summer the best time to launch a reality show now?
No. We're not doing that because we don't need that many. We've had several successful launches in the middle of summer, and others have too, but the strategy is not to launch shows, it is to fill slots in summer and reality shows work, at the moment, much, much better than trying to launch scripted shows in the summer. They're both less expensive and they work better. Period. So no one's going to change their strategy because right now, if you want to keep the lights on in summer then you have to have reality shows on.
I think some of this is Survivor launched in the summer and Idol launched in the summer and Dancing With the Stars launched in the summer. So I think there's this sort of "Hey, they used to be able to." But I think it's completely a made-up story. Yes, those shows launched in the summer, and yes they then went onto the fall to become big hits, but it's not because they launched in the summer, it just happens that's where they launched. That was an era of where we were launching big reality shows. It's much harder. The genre's matured. There's less space because a lot of the shows that launched back then are still on the air. It's a lot harder to come up with big smash reality than it was.
It also seems like networks are saving their strongest new reality shows-like an X FactorÂ-for in-season.
I think you might do either. If it's a great show, it's likely to become a hit in the fall as well as the summer. The Voice launched in the summer, sort of; it actually launched in-season in April, it floated over to the summer. There are no rules anymore. If it's a big show, it will probably work wherever you launch it. But they're hard to find right now.
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