One week out from ABC Entertainment’s May 16 upfront, Robert Mills’ Burbank office is a kitsch-covered sanctuary in the midst of white-collar chaos. Decisions about renewals, pilot fates and the fall schedule are being weighed across the 10th floor of the company’s headquarters. But for the 43-year-old reality chief, surrounded by framed New England Patriots jerseys and ephemera from his Bachelor franchise, the big work is done: He just wrapped the deal of his career to date with ABC’s acquisition of American Idol. The resurrected singing competition, which ended a 15-season run on Fox in 2016, will add an anticipated 40 hours of programming to an already meaty alternative slate that includes Shark Tank, Dancing With the Stars and a suite of rebooted game shows.
Head of alternative series, specials and late night since 2015, with 11 employees in his department, the married father of two has a rare endurance hit in top performer The Bachelor and its spinoffs, including The Bachelorette, which returns May 22 with its first black lead. Right now, however, Mills’ attention is drifting to 2018. That’s when he and bosses Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood and ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey have the daunting task of making Idol a hit again.
How did the Idol deal come together?
I have an incredibly close relationship with the people at Fremantle — especially [North America co-CEO] Jen Mullin. She called, maybe in January, but it sounded like there was going to be a bidding war. We sort of let it go, and it played itself out in the press. Randomly, on vacation, Ben ran into an agent who represents [Idol co-owner] CORE. By then, it was on moratorium with Fox and NBC, so Ben talked to Channing and me. Sometimes you have to look at something from a different angle to get really excited.
How did you pitch it to the producers?
Ben is looking at it not just from an ABC standpoint, but a Disney one. Our idea for Fremantle was to put Idol on in the spring, use the Oscars as a platform and launch it as this big return, around the same time it used to air. It was about showing them all of our platforms: We can have auditions in the parks; we can amplify, not just at ABC, but with Disney Channel and Freeform. There’s a couple of different scenarios about the nights it will air — and, of course, there’s the Ryan Seacrest of it all.
What’s the latest there?
There has been some very early reaching out. He really wants to be as good as he was on it before, while now giving his all to Kelly & Ryan. I think he can do both; he thinks he can do both, but he’s giving it some serious thought.
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