Darnell in doubt

NBC's Silverman wooing Fox reality exec

Fox’s dark prince of reality TV could be bolting to another company, possibly NBC Universal.

New NBC U TV Studio co-chair Ben Silverman approached Fox alternative chief Mike Darnell last week about coming to the Peacock in order to launch his own company, three people familiar with the situation said. Darnell’s contract with Fox expires in several weeks, and a window in his contract allows him to entertain offers from other suitors.

In addition to NBC, several other companies are believed to have approached Darnell about doing a deal. One logical suitor would be Endemol USA, which has made clear it intends to invest in talent and existing companies this year.

But a Darnell-Silverman alliance would be the most intriguing play. Silverman would get access to Darnell’s active mind, while at the same time denying rival Fox one of its longest-serving creative talents. Fox is particularly vulnerable now with Darnell’s lieutenant, Kary McHoul, slated to ankle Fox this week for a gig as co-head of UTA’s alternative department (Daily Variety, June 1).

Darnell has become closely associated with the Fox brand thanks to a string of audacious audience grabbers from “When Animals Attack” and “Temptation Island” to more recent hits such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”; he’s also overseen the development of TV’s biggest overall smash, “American Idol.”

With that track record, Darnell has built a particularly close relationship with News Corp. prexy-chief operating officer Peter Chernin (as well as with Rupert Murdoch). That’s why it’s hard to imagine Chernin letting Darnell walk away from Fox — and why some industry insiders believe Darnell will ultimately make a deal with Fox, perhaps getting a long-desired prexy title in the process.

But Darnell may not be interested in keeping a network gig. Despite having pride of ownership in the hits he’s developed, he’s had no financial stake in them. By luring him to NBC U as a producer, Silverman is offering Darnell the chance to start his own company — and make a whole lot of money.

Of course, Silverman would also be bringing in some competition for another company with a deep NBC U relationship: Reveille, the banner he launched five years ago.

Meanwhile, as a key Fox exec mulls whether to jump to NBC, one of the Peacock’s pride is talking to Fox. NBC U TV Studio drama chief Laura Lancaster is talking to Fox about taking over the vacant job heading up drama development. Lancaster has told her NBC bosses she’d like to be let out of her contract (Daily Variety, June 8).

NBC, Fox and Darnell declined comment.

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