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Darnell signs new deal with Fox

Reality guru snags president title, more coin

After seriously flirting with several other offers, Fox reality guru Mike Darnell has decided to stay put — in exchange for a major promotion and lots more coin.

Darnell — an old-school Hollywood showman known for being relentlessly competitive — has signed a multiyear deal with the News Corp.-owned network that will make him president of alternative entertainment. That makes Darnell the first reality programming exec at a major net to snag such a lofty title.

He will also continue to operate with an unusual amount of autonomy, well beyond that given other reality execs around town. It’s understood that authority — which includes the power to greenlight pilots, presentations and specials, as well as creative control — will now be contractual.

There’ll also be a bigger payday for Darnell, who’s expected to pull in a high seven-figure salary over the first three years of the deal. Buzz is that Fox may have also found a way to include Darnell in the backend profits of shows that succeed, though neither he nor the network would discuss the issue.

One point of speculation in reality circles last week was who Darnell’s boss will be under his new deal. He and the network weren’t talking Monday, saying they contractually couldn’t discuss the matter.

Darnell did joke about one aspect of his new deal, however.

“I’m now contractually allowed to be late to meetings,” he said, referring to his well-known penchant for being tardy to pitches.

Whatever his quirks, Darnell’s track record made him a must-keep exec for Fox and News Corp.

During his 13-year tenure at Fox, Darnell has been involved in some of the biggest — and most notorious — reality success stories in television, starting with the biggest show of all: “American Idol.” Other hits have included “Temptation Island,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “When Animals Attack,” “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?,” “Joe Millionaire,” “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”

He’s also had his share of flops and has raised the ire of competitors by proceeding with (some would say “stealing”) an idea even after another net has announced plans for a similar show. Controversy has also followed a number of Darnell programs, from “Alien Autopsy” to, most notably, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”

Darnell had been operating without a contract since the beginning of July. While he always gets offers from other outlets, things got crazy this time around after new NBC mogul Ben Silverman offered Darnell a rich deal to set up a company at Universal Media Studios. Other major companies, including Endemol USA and RDF USA, also approached him.

“The other offers were fabulous and really beyond my wildest dreams. I needed Fox to step up, and they did in a lot of ways,” Darnell said. “Once they came up to the other offers, and everything was even, the deciding factor was where I felt most comfortable. This is my home. Ultimately, I decided to stay because of the people here.”

Many reality insiders always considered it unlikely that Darnell would leave Fox.

Exec has built an enviable power base at the network, carving out his own fiefdom on Fox’s Pico Boulevard lot. He’s assembled a fiercely loyal group of staffers in the division, and with his status as the elder statesman of reality, Darnell can pretty much call the shots with minimal interference from higher-ups.

Darnell relishes his role as ringmaster of the Fox reality machine and the perks that come with being a buyer. Industry observers believed he wouldn’t want to give that up by launching his own company elsewhere.

But Darnell said he came very close to doing just that, weighing every offer carefully with his wife-adviser, Carolyn Oberman Darnell.

“We strained over it for many weeks. It was exhaustive,” Darnell said. At one point, he even came up with potential names for his new banner: either Lucky 36 Prods. or Chelsea’s Dad Prods.

Darnell’s discussions included conversations with a variety of Fox and News Corp. execs.

“There were lots of personal conversations that involved everybody at the company, from the top to the bottom,” he said.

Now that he has reupped, Darnell said he expects to expand his department in the coming months, adding several new faces. He’ll also continue to work with other News Corp. properties, including Fox TV Studios and MySpace.

He said development at the net is in overdrive, in part because of the possibility of a WGA strike.

“I’m in fast-paced mode now,” Darnell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever picked up or will pick up over the next six months as many projects as I am doing now.”

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