American Idol: Fox's Mike Darnell Talks Unlimited Voting, New Theme Nights, Honest Judging

AI12_NY-Auditions-Day1_0417American Idol is back, and while Season 12’s initial numbers may be down compared to last year, Fox’s reality boss Mike Darnell insists he’s not worried. He’s got a buzzy new panel of judges, ideas for fresh theme nights, and a Susan Boyle-esque audition at his disposal over the next few months.

TVLine caught up with Darnell to talk about Idol‘s early returns, the idea of limiting viewer votes, and the challenge of making sure A-list judges can still excel at their jobs once the live telecasts begin.

TVLINE | We have to start with the inevitable ratings question: 17.9 million viewers and a 6.0 demo rating are numbers that 99 percent of shows would kill for. But on the flipside, you were down 19 percent in the demo year-to-year, and then you look two years back to the Season 10 premiere, you had a whopping 26.3 million viewers total. With that in mind, are you happy with the first set of Season 12 ratings?
We really are. I mean this show is in its 12th season, and it still managed to beat the combined numberw of ABC, CBS, and NBC last night by like 11 percent. These shows, there’s a lot more competition now. [The Voice, The X Factor, Idol] are hurting each other, there’s no question about that. It could have been worse, much worse. We feel that the show generated a lot of buzz this season and the numbers held up really well last night. It’s still a powerhouse. I’d say 100 percent of all shows, including Idol, would be happy with that number. It’s a great number.

In addition, I feel like we have a really good shot at cutting the deficit this year. That was just Night One. The judges are being extraordinarily well-received, from everything I’m reading. We have breakout dynamics, things that no one’s ever seen before in a judge panel. Sometimes you can feel it, kind of like that first year with Steven and J. Lo. If you remember that first night with Steven and J. Lo, we were down 18 percent. Then slowly but surely we eroded into that, we cut into that deficit. By the end of the season it was gone. Now, I don’t know if I expect it to be gone [at the end of Season 12], but I expect to cut this deficit because this judge panel is so interesting and so dynamic. In addition, tonight we’ve got the [audition] piece with this guy who stutters and it’s just incredible. It’s like a Susan Boyle moment.

TVLINE | I saw his audition at the movie-theater screening Fox held in New York last week. It’s pretty amazing, I have to agree.
It’s going to go viral, in my opinion. There’s a lot to talk about. Plus, things start getting more interesting with [Nicki and Mariah] tonight and then even more interesting in [the] Charlotte [audition episode], which is next week. It was interesting, in both social media and blogs, there’s a lot of talk about the judges’ panel and it’s mostly positive — in an entertaining way. That’s going to help the show. I said it at TCA and I mean it, I think it’s revitalizing the show.

TVLINE | Idol is a show that, to me, lives or dies every season on the strength of its contestants. Is there ever a fear of putting too much focus on the judges? Or is this just inevitable because it’s the beginning of the season and we don’t know the contestants yet?
That’s it. That’s exactly right. No one knows anybody yet, so it’s got to be about the judges and their dynamic at first. They’re getting all the press right now, but my best guess is by the end of tonight, it’ll be the guy who has the stuttering problem that’ll get a lot of the press. That’s because it eventually does automatically go to the talent. That being said, your judges have to be entertaining. There were good arguments last night, there were disagreements, there were obviously moments of tension, things that we haven’t had in a couple of years. Also, people were impressed that this panel did not just put somebody through because they had a sob story. In fact, several times last night they didn’t. It surprised people when they didn’t put them through. This panel is very discerning and smart in the way they do things. Right now, the dynamic is fascinating. They’re all going to break out. I mean, Mariah Carey is obviously the best singer to to ever hit the planet. Nicki is just an enormous personality, and she’s surprising people with how smart she is, how emotionally connected she is. And Keith is going to evolve in the next few weeks as a real [TV] star.

TVLINE | When you mentioned the thoughtfulness and the discussion and the debate, it made me remember the frustrating part of the last several seasons of Idol was everybody on the panel agreed, everybody said yes or no to the same contestants. It was like a rubber stamp situation. Was the idea of more disagreement in the auditions, the idea of more debate about contestants’ qualifications, something you set out to achieve once you knew you had to reboot the panel? 
We’ve heard the audience. We’ve heard that complaint, and there’s some truth to it. Actually, there’s some truth to it on all of the shows. There’s a lot of yeses and “you’re greats” when they’re really not. I encouraged this panel to be tougher, more discerning. Part of that they came in with naturally. Keith spent a year judging The Voice in Australia. The two girls are tough in their own way. They’re not mean, I think you saw that last night. Even on the funny contestants there was an emotional connection. Like you saw Nicki with the Justin Bieber [wannabe]. It wasn’t mean, but it was honest, straightforward and funny and passionate and a lot of things truthfully that we haven’t had in a while. You’re going to see more of that tonight in Chicago.

TVLINE | I read a quote from Idol’s TCA panel that said “we’re going to separate the contestants by gender in Vegas until we get down to our Top 10.” Are the judges narrowing it down to a Top 10? That would be unprecedented.
No, here’s what’s happening. The way it worked was Hollywood week has been split up into boys and girls, so it’s really two weeks of Hollywood on TV. The boys go through the entire sequence, then the girls go through the same thing. By the end of that, we get down to 20 boys and 20 girls. Then the middle rounds, we still have them split boys and girls, and the judges will bring that down to 20, and the audience will bring it down from 20 to 10.

TVLINE | Okay, that makes me feel better. Idol has always given viewers more control of the voting process than its competitors, and I would hate for that to change.
I agree with that, and I don’t want to lose that core. That’s the thing that you struggle with: You like to give Idol fans new things to talk about and give the show new things to do, and you do, but you still have to keep its core values in place or you lose that audience who really loves the show.

TVLINE | Question about Season 12 voting: There’s the annual complaint that unlimited voting allows cute boys to win every year. Do you guys ever think about limiting the number of votes? Is being able to tout 40 million votes or 50 million votes really that important? Or do you reject the idea that something is broken because, for example, Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips have had success on the charts?
We’ve debated this over the years. There is a debate within the production companies even. Should you limit it, should you not limit it? I don’t have any evidence that limiting voting would change [the outcome], to be frank, although I know there’s this “white boys with guitars” thing that everybody keeps talking about. The truth is, the last two winners have done, like you said, exceptionally. The audience, in the end ,knows what it wants. And it’s important to give them what they want, because they’re the ones that are going to buy the records. I think this show, when you get a winner, [the audience is] engaged enough to go buy the single and go buy the album. And they’re not in the other shows.

TVLINE | Back to the judges for a moment. How do you make sure that Nicki, Mariah and Keith succeed once you get to the live rounds. I mean, we’ve seen Ellen Degeneres and Steven Tyler be entertaining in pre-taped segments, where they get edited, and then fall apart without that editing help. What conversations have you guys had to make sure that the newcomers continue to come across as invested and honest on live TV?
Part of that is who you’re hiring. Some people freeze, that’s true, when they go live. This panel will not. I am not concerned. Their real emotions come out very quickly. I don’t have a better way to say it. I don’t think they can control that part of their sensibilities.

TVLINE | Is there any concern the pendulum could swing too far the other way, that they’ll be too emotional or squabble to the point where it’s uncomfortable?
No, because if you’re passionate and you believe something and it’s real and it’s honest, then it always works. It’s funny. Why are Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell so likeable even though they can be tough? Because it’s honest. That’s what I truly believe. When you fake it, well, that’s different, but when it’s honest and coming from an organic space, it always plays. I’m not worried about that. Aren’t you kind of excited to see this panel live?

TVLINE | I won’t lie to you. I am.
You know I can’t control it with editing. What you get is what you’re going to get.

TVLINE | One other long-standing grumble among fans is that it’s been a little bit of a the same-old, same-old when it comes to weekly themes or hearing the same songs season after season. Is that a matter of it being too expensive to clear new material, or too time consuming?
It has nothing to do with cost. Sometimes the artists won’t clear a song; it’s rare, but sometimes they won’t and you can’t get something. Honestly, if you look at The Voice and X Factor even, good songs are good songs, and they just get sung a lot. I don’t know if the newer songs are worse, I just think you have the luxury of looking back at 20 years of songs and finding the great ones. We’re doing a better job, I think, of mixing new and old, but everybody does that because a good song is a good song.

TVLINE | Will you guys shake up the theme nights a little bit, maybe try out some new ones that we haven’t seen before?
Yes. I don’t know what they’ll be yet, but yes. That is one of our goals this season.

TVLINE | We’ve heard several times from several of the judges that the girls are strong this year. Would you like to see a female winner just for variety sake and just so people stop using the “white guy with guitar” label?
I don’t really have a preference. Whoever’s best and whoever the audience likes the best is fine with me. Ultimately, like you said, one of the beauties of the show is it’s really America’s call.

TVLINE | When it comes to ratings and when it comes to the landscape for reality singing competitions, is there any regret in your mind about launching X Factor in the US.? There’s obviously a sense of people maxing out on the number of hours of reality singing competitions they can watch per year…
Here’s the thing, Simon was leaving Idol. I wasn’t going to let him go to another network. And I like X Factor. I still like X Factor a lot. So to answer your question, not really. Plus, The Voice was coming anyway. In the long-run, it’s still nice for us to have something in the fall and something in winter.

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45 Comments
  1. Karen O says:

    All of this is very promising.

  2. Alienate says:

    The guy actually sounded half way invested. Here’s hoping this year’s shows are better than last year’s.

  3. Allyson says:

    until you change the voting system, you are going to get the same type of winner every time. I can almost gaurantee right now, a WGWG will win again! Of course the producers don’t want to mess with the voting system. Time to put some limits on voting!

    • Alienate says:

      Yes, I have railed against the voting system for years. (ever since texting went crazy) So, we un-tweens just stopped voting. :(

      • Allyson says:

        I have stopped watching the show! Until things change, I will boycott the show. It is ashame, but is absurd the producers refused to change the voting system!

        • Mary says:

          The voice has limited voting and guys still won there except this year due to the way they 10x the points for top I tune sales, which sorry I didn’t think was fair. It was okay to give them points for selling in top ten but not 10X the amount. My point being, the demographics who watch the show will still vote for the guys whether it is 5 vote limit or unlimited. I truly believe it would not have changed the outcome if limited.

      • knative says:

        It’s not the tweens that vote for the WGWG, it’s the frau.
        The tweeners like Jessica Phillips and Skylar what’sherface and they also like younger Justin-Bieber-esque singers, not older kind-of-ugly dudes that play guitar.

    • Timmah says:

      A WGWG will win again, and again. And ratings will continue to drop every year.

      • Aria says:

        Unless they avoid a WGWG altogether in the Top 20, or put a forgettable un-pimped one or two few (like Tim Halperin a few seasons back). I think we can expect the latter this season because, despite what is said in this interview, we know they want to break the WGWG streak.

      • Mary says:

        I hate to break it to you but the ratings will decline even if a girl wins. It is a 12 year old show, ratings will go down it is not because a WGWG wins. If they have a contestant male or female that gets buzz that might help but AI will never have numbers like they used to.

        • HitTheGroundRunningWonderlandHaleyOhMy says:

          It’s been on a long time.
          .
          There are some many other such shows (if Idol had never done anything to PMO anyone off a bit and the judging and production were perfect and everyone’s favorites were always winning (not that that is possible but assume it were) I think many might be a bit too burned out by this point and the way the shows draw everything out for hours eventually you don’t have the time even if you did still have the will).
          .
          The judging and production started to get completely over the top fake and manipulative in really bad ways starting with the Haley season (and I think that did help drive away some ratings, many of the people I know who used to watch finally gave up on it after top three week that season and if you look at top two ratings that season they did not have nearly the usual bump up and I believe the start of the next season was down by about the same amount, some of that may have also been due to all country, final with no variety, which made it all the more bizarre that they seemed so obsessed with pushing for that and bring us to….). Reality TV is never fully real but that was just ridiculous. I absolutely skipped the entire first half of last season and more because of that alone. It was so over the top biased and manipulated. Literally give entirely 100% contradictory ‘critques’ two different contestants even signing directly back to back and even getting mean about at times, bad enough to be fake but then to nastily tear some of the better talent down while then raving about someone who literally had a disaster a minute later, just to try to match who got the biggest early air time or what not, gimme a break. It felt like they were killing a much better script that was trying to naturally develop. And will do the same this season (although I think I might be too burned out from these shows at this point anyway). If there are contestants I like once hollywood weeks are over and if the judging/production seems more reality and less reality tv then I’ll watch the latter part of the season,if not, I’ll just wait for The Voice, since I’d be too burned out to want to deal with Idol if it is run all season 10 like again.
          .
          Having the same WGWG (and seeing how any country guy, no matter what he does get ten zillion votes on all these shows now, at least the FOX ones) always win again and again and again does become tiresome for some portion of the audience and I do think they slowly lose more and more of that portion (which then leads to even great likelihood of having the same type of winner and it’s a vicious cycle perhaps). I mean Scotty or Tate basically could do absolutely whatever on any given week and they’d have still had a guaranteed #1 (or #2 at worst) no mater what.
          .
          And something about the way XFactor went about some things, in an almost hatefully exploitative way, it felt almost like you needed a bath afterwards a couple times.

    • Tom22 says:

      The best response is to refuse to watch the final few episodes of the show. The voting is a pretty real statement about who people in diverse segments get really excited about.

      It isn’t a singing competition like some sporting or school competition event. It is a talent search for Idols which in its very title emphasizes Popularity. A very good singer with nothing particularly unique about them or nothing particularly personally charming about them won’t get as many votes as no group will be strongly behind them (and as they are doing live performances they are not being judged as studio performers but for their capacity as variety show performers, which entails a personal charm in interviews)

      Once you get down to the final 3 or 4, it is more about what sorts of people are watching the show rather than any sense of “talent” because in the end we buy music from musiciaans who speek to us and different musicians speak to different people .

      Voting isn’t that unfair, the performers with strong fan bases do advance. Skilled performers that havn’t really bonded with people don’t.

      The unfairness is in the show not allowing singers to choose songs they will excel at and attract a fan base with . (steering and vetoing) and by unfair editits and additional face time they give to their favorites.

      I strongly agree that the show is often unfair in that regard. I don’t feel that the the show trys to put out the absolute best performance they can from each of the singers but trys less hard and makes sure certain singer don’t pick songs that have a particular appeal to audience segments in weeks where if they survive, a show favorite will be at risk.

      But back to the original point. If you expect the best singer to win, you’re in a dreamland unless your personal taste is at the center of the largest pop/ pop country segments of the music audience in the nation.

      Feel happy when a singer that won’t have broad teen appeal reaches the final 4 , consider that a victory and stop watching the show then , happy your favorite made it that far.

  4. Mick says:

    Idol is A relatively good reality show but X-Factor needs to go.

    • Tom22 says:

      I hope the picked up on how disgusted people are with the sob storries. From last night it looked like they mostly did. The stuttering was interesting because it does relate to singing more. I understand that it is an entertainment show and they are going to find people with Diverse backstories to provide some hooks and vary things ….. but I hope few of them are problems.

      I completely fast forwarded through the girl with anorexia in prostest. I hope I didn’t miss much. I did watch some of their sponsors commercials …. they commercials don’t elicit a negative response unless I’ve seen them too many times or they go on too long.

  5. Leela says:

    Totally disagree about unlimited voting – it needs to be limited and now! If people feel their vote matters, they will vote instead of shrugging & saying what’s the point? It will also get more people invested in the contestants. They also need to eliminate text-voting. That skews young(er). Landline, cell, internet & I’d say 1 vote/device.

  6. JJ says:

    I wish you would have thrown in why they are keeping SYTYCD to one night a week, too. Still pisses me off. Good insight though, Michael.

  7. E says:

    They need to remember that even though someone might vote one thousand times, they’re only going to buy the single once. Eliminate unlimited voting and maybe the singer with the larger fan base will win over the singer with a smaller yet rabid fan base. Perhaps it would restore some credibility to the show.

    • Tom22 says:

      I wish Darnell had phrased the question a bit differently to not cast it so starkly on the effect of unlimmited voting on the final winner, an that he refined the question to sound like it was a bout a “Level” of limitation .

      “Why not allow people lots of votes, but set some top so that one teen voting 100 times doesn’t absolutely wipe out opinions of dozens of voters excited enough to vote more than once, but only a handful of times. I understand the point about the number one finisher, but lots of people who watch the show are also interested to see good peformers stick around more weeks… do you lose a broader audience before the finals with the unlimited voiting?”

  8. teatime says:

    Good interview Michael.
    I appreciated all of Darnell’s responses.

  9. Josh says:

    Get rid of unlimited voting! I thought and still think Phiilip sucks and loved Hollie Jessica Skylar and Josh but stopping voting because whats the use it wont mattter cause bland boring overrated Phil was going to win i stopped watching the week Hollie left

    • Mary says:

      He was not my choice but his single did go 3platium. Who to say if Jessica, Holly or Josh would of. What you call bland many others call perfection. I believe PP would of won even if the votes
      were limited. He had a fan base it is obvious the others were not as large.

  10. Timmah says:

    It worries me when these guys use terms like “breakout dynamics”. That means that they do everything by the numbers, throwing common sense out the window.

  11. OMG says:

    If you look at people’s choice awards, you will realize how much small but rabid fanbases (like Beauty and The Beast) can outdo clearly more popular and watched shows (Arrow, Revolution). Or how glee, and glee actors consistently win people’s choice.

    So I think the limiting of votes is important.

  12. MB says:

    I wonder why they are so stuck on unlimited voting and refuse to make changes. Don’t get me wrong I am very happy with who won last year and he is doing great on the charts. I do believe even if the votes were limited he still would have won. Yet I do think it would be better all around if voting was limited.

    • Timmah says:

      Agreed, and I think it’s a cop-out to say the voters always get it right. What about Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, David Cook, Taylor Hicks? Let’s at least try a different voting system so that we don’t get these same type of winners every year.

      • teatime says:

        So now even David Cook winning is an issue? Because he’s white? Because he’s a musician? That’s just ignorant.

        • MB says:

          David Cook was my choice in season 7 and I voted for him. I still like him and I don’t believe he is done. He did well after Idol also, better than any other contestant in that season. He was the right winner in my opinion. He is just going through a slow time right now. He’ll be back.

          • Timmah says:

            Cook’s career is over, basically. Meanwhile, Archie is still going strong. As are a few others like Carly Smithson.

          • teatime says:

            McCreery and Cook now have comparable sales. The two of them are the best selling contestants since Daughtry in Season 5. People complain about the winners because it is not who they voted for. It is not a question of sales. The only recent non-winner that sold considerably more than their winner is a white guy runner.

          • teatime says:

            runner-up.

      • Mary says:

        It might not have been your choice but I believe Cook and Allen were the right winner. It gets old the same old story they shouldn’t have won people voted thousand of times to get them through
        blah blah blah. I still believe they would of won even if it was limited. AI gives these guys a start,
        some fan base, the rest when they out in the music world is up to them. Even the runner ups

  13. Jim Brooks says:

    This from an older guy who has experienced a lot of life’s ups and downs : You guys and girls have the right to debate this Idol stuff forever. I don’t get involved in the debates and will continue, as I have for 11 seasons, to enjoy and not get too distracted from the amazing talent and the fun personalities of the competitors and judges. My advice is to ENJOY it all no matter what ! Appreciate all the good stuff that is provided on this show and don’t be dominated by the negatives. Jim – Your grandad at 71.

    • marie says:

      Agree! (And THIS kind of outlook on things is EXACTLY why for the most part I am soooooo enjoying getting older! Listen up, young ‘uns…!)

    • CK says:

      My thoughts exactly. Every season I’ve found someone to enjoy. Most of my favorites haven’t won, but had good long runs on the show. A couple that come to mind right away were Adam Lambert and Haley Reinhart. Such fun watching them. Idol is a pleasant disctraction from life’s stresses.

  14. freethinker says:

    If they even let one WGWG in this year he will win. I had Phillip picked out from the moment he walked into his audition and I think plenty of others did as well. Season 8 is a perfect example of how the southern voters power vote to get who they want and it’s always a WGWG every year. The voting does need to change if they want a different result but I guess they don’t care because they need the ratings and that comes from the south.

    • Mary says:

      It is a Freaking reality show, It is sad that people can’t get over 4 years ago. I agree I would like to see a female win but not just because she is a girl. I hate to break it to you but the Northerners voted for Kris too, not just the south. I am glad he won, and I think he is the most underrated artist. I am sure both Kris and Adam had power votes, the only difference is Kris picked up Danny’s followers. My point is Kris would of won even if it was limited.

  15. southerner says:

    What a hoot. The article was dry and predictable but these comments were worth the time it took to read them. I’ll add mine … relative to the article … the new panel — so far I find them boring and one of ‘the girls’ (the homely looking one) looks tired and in need of a vacation and a stylist …. the Susan Boil’ish whatever label they put on the one audition that was not all that good — the label is negative and mean, drop it or lose more of your audience …. voting, voting, voting — if you are afraid to change what you have, don’t and lose more of your audience but quit whining about it …. the promise of more exciting auditions — great, so far none of those you have televised were that good.

  16. MIAAUTOSHOWOFF says:

    “Can’t wait to see next week American bully IDOL, WHERE @NIKKIMINAJ WILL BE BULLYING MARIAH CAREY”TOTALLY DISRESPECTIN MARIAH, ON LIVE TV , WE WILL SEE THE SIDE OF NIKKI WE NEVER SEEN BEFORE.

  17. MIAAUTOSHOWOFF says:

    WHAT HAPPEN TO NIKKI WE SEE HER AS A ICON A SWEET BEAUTIFUL YOUNG LADY THAT MADE IT TO THE TOP” ITS NOW A DISRESPECTING HATEFUL YOUNG LADY. WHAT ? IT SHOULD BE ABOUT THE AUDITING NOT ABOUT NIKKI DISRESPECTING MARIAH ON LIVE T.V. THE OTHER SIDE OF @ NIKKIMINAJ IS MEAN SHE WASZ SO SWEET, MARIAH NEED SECURITY!!! IT SHOULD BE THE NIKKIMINAJ SHOW, SHE WAS JEALOUS OF GIRL MAKE.UP. PLEASE NIKKI ,”NIKKI SAID TO MARIAH DON’T COMMENT ! THATS NOT A FACEBOOK ” WHERE YOU CONTROL WHO SHOULD COMMENT !! NIKKI IS A BULLY.

  18. MIAAUTOSHOWOFF says:

    what happened to the auditions , IT’S NOW ABOUT NIKKI BULLYING MARIAH ? THE RATING WILL GO DOWN ,THE PEOPLE WANTS TO SEE THE AUDITIONS NOT NIKKI BULLY THE FLOOR.

  19. MIAAUTOSHOWOFF says:

    I’VE BEEN WATCHING IDOL SENSE IT STARTED, BUT WITH THE NEW DISRESPECTING & BULLYING NIKKI ON THE FLOOR IF IT DOES NOT STOP I’M OUT , IT’S TO MUCH THERES NO MORE RESPECT ABOUT THE SHOW. OK IT’S FOR THE RATING , WELL PUT SOMEONE TO CHALLENGE NIKKI.

  20. MIAAUTOSHOWOFF says:

    IF IT WASZ NIKKIMINAJ & LIL KIM ALL HELL WOULD’VE BROKE OUT!!!”

  21. Mafs95 says:

    I think voting system should really change. I think it should be either one of these things:

    1) Limiting the votes to 20-30 per cellphone (calls + texting combined)

    2) From the bottom 3, the judges would save ONE of those people and the from the other two, the one with less votes would be eliminated

    3) Eliminate the contestant who ACCUMULATED the least amount of votes until that week (starting from week 1) instead of the one who received less votes in that particular week.