Mike Darnell isn’t just the best-known alternative programming exec at any of the major networks. He’s the only guy who has held the post in the 27-year history of the Fox network, which he joined in 1994 after spending eight years on the news side of Fox’s Los Angeles O&O, KTTV.
“No one else has ever done this job here,” he says. That made his decision to leave all the more difficult, but he has decided to move on next month when his contract expires.
“It’s in my nature to be comfortable,” he says. “This place is my family, my home. So when it came time to do a new contract, I really thought that either I’m going to keep going and retire here, or I’ve got to try something new. I’m not getting any younger, you know.”
The Big Three networks have long had execs in charge of specials and major events. But it was Darnell who saw the primetime potential in the shows that would help define the contemporary reality TV genre.
“I came in here thinking there’s all this stuff out there that nobody’s mining,” he said.
Darnell got his start in the biz as a child actor. (Among his early appearances in Variety was this notice in a review of a 1975 seg of “Kojak”) During his time in local TV, police car chases always brought in ratings. So did videos of unusual encounters with animals.
“I thought, why can’t I do them as primetime specials,” Darnell said. “I remember seeing a clip of a guy who was attacked by a deer after he put deer urine on his clothes. That was great television.”
Hence “World’s Scariest Police Chases” and “When Animals Attack” were born, first as specials and later as regular series. A few years into his role as director of specials, he was doing 60-plus specials a year. Those specials may have given advertisers fits, but they propped up the network’s ratings in a big way back when Fox still regularly trailed ABC, CBS and NBC.
After ABC hit with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and CBS scored with “Survivor,” Darnell had free rein from his bosses (and he has had many bosses over the years) to take big swings.
“At first we were just trying to be edgy and doing things that no one had ever seen on TV,” he says. And then ‘Millionaire’ and ‘Survivor’ sort of made (reality) legit.That’s when we started thinking more seriously about series.”
The proudest achievements of Darnell’s nearly 20-year run at the network is “American Idol” and the success he’s had with Gordon Ramsay’s shows (“Hell’s Kitchen,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “MasterChef”). But the initial 2003 run of “Joe Millionaire” (pictured above) remains a favorite memory. As he’s quick to note, the show’s first-season finale that February remains the highest-rated entertainment telecast in the history of Fox — even surpassing “Idol” at its peak.
“It did 40 million viewers and a 40 share on a Sunday night,” Darnell says.
Darnell’s picks for his greatest hits also include the “Alien Autopsy” specials (just because), “Paradise Hotel” and the controversial “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” which made headlines when the millionaire in question turned out to have a checkered past. “I thought that one might kill me,” he confesses.
The “Magic’s Biggest Secrets” specials of the late 1990s also caused a ratings-generating stir as magicians from around the world pleaded and threatened the network not to reveal their trade secret. For a time Darnell’s photo was posted at the entry of Hollywood’s Magic Castle. “They wouldn’t let me in,” he laughs.
He’s also proud of recognizing the talent in young animator Seth MacFarlane, whose “Family Guy” toon was initially developed through Darnell’s division. Characteristically, Darnell is his own best cheerleader.
“Between ‘Idol’ and ‘Family Guy,’ those shows have made this company a lot of money,” he says.