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17
2 YEARS

Fox's Mike Darnell on 'American Idol' Premiere Ratings: 'We're Relieved'

The network's president of alternative programming promises more action in the coming episodes and lambasts competitive shows where judges "are worried about their image too much."

American Idol Judges Square - P 2012

“Authentic” -- that’s how Fox brass are referring to the diva standoff that’s transpired on the season 12 premiere of American Idol.

“Clearly the dynamic is authentic,” Fox president of alternative programming Mike Darnell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That's the best way I can say it, and it gets even more, er, authentic next week in Charlotte.”

Indeed, the addition of music stars Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj had the web buzzing on premiere night, as loyalists delighted in the much-missed action this new panel -- which also includes rookie Keith Urban and veteran Randy Jackson -- seems ready to provide. The ratings, however, told a different story. Down 19 percent from the previous season, the showing was in line with recent trends, but that doesn’t make it sting any less.

PHOTOS: 'American Idol' Season 12: Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj Search for a Winner

Still, says Darnell, who only slept for an hour on Wednesday night, “we're relieved. Look, the deficit of these shows right now is that there's too many of them and they're hurting each other.” And let's face it, 17.9 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at.

One thing Idol has in its pocket, however, is word-of-mouth -- the kind of water-cooler chatter that advertising and talk-show appearances can’t necessarily buy. “I think I've got a very entertaining panel, and a lot of people don't know what to think until they come in,” says Darnell. “We beat everybody last night, and we're way ahead of The Voice. It's by far the biggest reality show, [and] I feel like there's a real shot at closing that deficit over the next few weeks.”

Perhaps the greatest point of pride for Darnell, the Fox executive who first gave Idol the green light: that the judges are “not mean,” he says. “It's still funny and still plays. There's just a sense of sort of honesty and a lack of holding back, and that's what people want to see. They want passionate judges with a raw way of speaking. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the judges on all these shows are worried about their image too much instead of what they should be worrying about: if people like them as a good judge. I always say that about Gordon [Ramsay] and Simon [Cowell] -- these are tough guys, but people love them, and I think people love them because they're real.”

PHOTOS: The New Season of 'American Idol': Will It Work?

In fact, adds Darnell, the buzz of season 12’s opening night harkened back to memories of Idol’s best yesteryear. “There certainly were days when there was talk about the dynamic between Paula [Abdul] and Simon,” he said, making the comparison to the current season. “They really had their moments, I think people forget that. You might remember the season when they kissed -- we did that because their dynamic was so divisive of that that it made for a very funny bit. So [season 12] reminds me of when the panel was at its peak and Simon was there and there were disagreements all the time. I think we've sort of brought back that magic.”

As for where the show goes from here, Darnell promises “huge characters with huge stories. … It's going to feel very new to people once you get to Hollywood Week. The split between boys and girls makes it a little more intense and much easier, if you will, to focus on the big stars.”

Of course, we had to ask: Is the network worried about the judges once the show gets into live episodes -- say, one of the panelists deciding to storm off set? Says Darnell: “Too much passion does not worry me. That's never going to be one of my problems.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin