Mike Darnell, the president of alternative entertainment at the Fox network, does not look like a network TV executive. The 50-year-old is short, wiry, wears his dark curly hair shoulder length and is usually outfitted in a suede jacket, jeans and sneakers. Often he wears a cowboy hat.
Nor does he look like a man responsible for the decline of network television, but to some he is exactly that. The man behind such bizarre reality shows as Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?, When Animals Attack! and Temptation Island has been called "Fox's point man for perversity" by the New York Times.
On this day he's merely the exec responsible for American Idol. This week, the Idol bandwagon starts rolling again (Wednesday, Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) for its 12th season. The success of Idol begat other singing and dancing competition shows on TV. Everything from The X-Factor to The Voice has come, stayed and keeps on going.
Me, I wonder if there is any possibility that American Idol is just over? That it might end, and all the prattle about the judges might cease? A lot of people would like that to happen.
Darnell finds this amusing. The man responsible for Joe Millionaire is bound to have a peculiar sense of humour, one supposes. He smiles and says, "Look, not in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined that we'd have a show go 11 years, going into its 12th, and still be the No. 1 entertainment show on television. No. That's incredible. And that's with all of the challengers and everything else on TV."
But, it is pointed out, the viewing numbers are going down. "We're still doing numbers that, even as they go down, are enviable," he says. "I don't see us living without [American Idol] for many years to come."
Earlier, I'd witnessed the whole Idol circus – judges, producers and execs – arrive together at the Television Critics Association winter press gathering here to promote the new season. One reason why Idol, which seems so old fashioned these days, keeps getting viewers is the attention paid to its judges.
The big story surrounding the new Idol season is, in fact, the judges. Randy Jackson is still there, like a relic of ancient times, and he's joined now by Mariah Carey, rapper Nicki Minaj and country crooner Keith Urban. Since this season of Idol went into production, there have been numerous reports of "cat-fighting" between Carey and Minaj, and a report that Carey had ordered extra security after Minaj got nasty with her. Some verbal jousting between the two was even caught on tape.
It was suggested to the circus members that the fuss "feels like it's fake." The high-dudgeon rejection of this theory was priceless to behold. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe adopted the air of a man accused of falsifying legal documents. "Whatever feuds there have been – and this isn't just between Nicki and Mariah but Keith and Randy as well – are genuine," Lythgoe declared. "Whenever you're in this sort of passionate situation, these things happen."
At that point, Darnell interjected to say "it's authentic," and added: "There is passion in this group. They disagree about the talent, and the ways to approach the talent."
Right, the talent! Those hopefuls who line up for hours, belt out their best songs for the judges and, if chosen, struggle to make the final rounds and, with luck, achieve singing stardom. They were rather forgotten in all the promotional giddiness.
Carey talked a lot about herself and occasionally glanced at Minaj, who, in turn, looked bored. Darnell looked vaguely amused throughout, but he kept a straight face when Carey said: "This is a passionate panel. There are a lot of strong personalities."
Watching this unfold, I had the feeling it was all as fake as the reported "cat-fighting" and felt in my gut that, since Simon Cowell left Idol, the show has struggled to hold viewer attention. And I suspected that the fuss about the in-fighting and feuding was orchestrated to keep alive the media attention. I felt that Darnell, the maestro of attention-grabbing reality TV, was pulling off an elaborate charade.
So I asked him if it was a concoction to get attention. The leaked video. The ostentatious frostiness between Carey and Minaj. "Well, no," he said. "Something was probably leaked to TMZ, but we did not encourage it."
Sure thing then. On Joe Millionaire it turned out that "Joe" wasn't a millionaire. On Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire? it turned the guy was neither nice nor that rich, really. But both shows got massive attention. American Idol is now on the same level of fakery. Look at the people involved and pulling the strings. I'm just saying.