American Idol contestant Tehilla Takila Lauder courtesy FOX
American Idol is back. The ratings for the first two nights weren't as big as last year, but still much bigger than everything else in prime time. But will AI stand out as the writers' strike leads the networks to flood their schedules with reality competitions and game shows? The Biz caught up with Fox's master of reality Mike Darnell to get his thoughts on Idol and the rest of TV's unscripted landscape.

TVGuide.com: So you're not worried about the ratings decline that Idol experienced its first two nights?
Mike Darnell:
I couldn't be happier with these numbers. I'm about as excited as I've ever been for the show. In Season 7, (in audience share) it's still in the 30s. That's an amazing thing for a television show. With DVRs and everything else, and it's so much bigger - it's increased its span between it and the next biggest show.

TVGuide.com: Wasn't there anticipation that you might do better this season because of the strike?
Darnell:
I never had that anticipation. No one here did. The strike is relatively meaningless with a show like this. This show carries its own wind. No one competes with us anyway, to be frank. In fact, from what I can tell, our competition is a little harder this year because there are more reality shows on - that's all anybody's got to offer right now.

TVGuide.com: How do you feel Idol has been different this season, based on what you've seen so far?
Darnell:
You don't want to do too much different when you've got the biggest show on television. You want to make some changes, but minor [ones]. You know, we let them play instruments in Hollywood and those types of things. I know what everybody has been saying - maybe the judges are a little gentler - but I don't see it. I think there is a good ratio of good to bad - maybe a [more] even keel of good talent to bad talent on the auditions show. That's what I think the difference is.

TVGuide.com: What has the strike done to the market for reality shows? Is there a scramble going on right now?
Darnell:
No. For me, reality is a big part of the network. This time of year is my big time anyway because of Idol, and I always plan something to come on after Idol. Last year it was Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? This year it's Moment of Truth. I would say the only difference for me right now is that we may pick up a few more full-fledged series as an in-case scenario, depending on how long the strike goes.

TVGuide.com: Are you surprised that reality shows that have been around for a while, such as Supernanny and The Apprentice, can come back and do decent numbers?
Darnell:
Not really. Part of it is lowered expectations. Three years ago, you would have written that an eight share was a failure. Now an eight or nine share is OK. Those shows you mentioned have declined, but the decline has been less than their scripted brethren. They were doing 12 and 13 shares; now they're doing eight or nine shares. The failures (in network television) are doing five shares. Maybe the general TV critic population thought these shows would fade quickly. But they seem to be as durable as scripted shows, maybe even more so.

TVGuide.com: Is American Gladiators going to be a long-running hit for NBC? Is its popularity driven by nostalgia?
Darnell:
I think most of the appeal is based on nostalgia. And because of that it will have a short shelf life.

TVGuide.com: Is the aftermath of the strike going to be a larger percentage of reality on the schedule?
Darnell:
If the show is good, it won't matter that the strike is over. If the show is bad, it won't matter that the strike is on. The audience isn't basing their like or dislike on whatever shows are on. During summer it's mostly reality shows. There are between 30 and 35 reality shows on. They mostly bomb. Why? Not because there is competition. It's because they suck. The audience will stay with what's good and dump what's bad. Summer is a great example of how just because something is on doesn't mean people are going to like it.

TVGuide.com: On Jan. 23, Fox will debut Moment of Truth, in which contestants answer personal questions and a lie detector will reveal if they're honest. It looks pretty wild in the promos. Is it the edgiest thing you've done?
Darnell:
In the last three or four years, no question about it. It's the edgiest psychological thing I've ever done. I've done edgier sexier things and edgier violent things like The Chair, but nothing like this. It's a fascinating show.

TVGuide.com: Are you able to take a gamble on a show like this because of the strike?
Darnell:
This was planned, strike or no strike. Every few years or so it's good for us to do something that gets people talking.

TVGuide.com: Because it reminds people you're Fox?
Darnell:
Exactly. It gives us that little Fox edge. It's healthy. You get in trouble when you do too many of them. But if you let a couple of years pass, it's good to have something like this.