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TCA: Mike Darnell’s Shadow Hangs Over Fox Session

'American Idol,' 'X Factor' play an over-sized role in determining Fox's near-term fortunes

It felt strange not having Mike Darnell at a Fox press tour session. Yet the legacy of the one-time reality guru — and the issues left unresolved since the network announced his departure — lingered during Thursday’s Q&A with Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly.

For years, Darnell sat in the back at the TV Critics Assn. gathering, watching one exec after another deal with the public-relations fallout from one of his latest unscripted brainchildren — from “When Animals Attack” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” to “Temptation Island” to the more recent “Does Someone Have to Go?” to, oh, you get the point.

As previously noted, even if critics often disapproved of his progeny, in terms of colorful copy Darnell was the gift who kept on giving, ginning up controversy and providing front-page fodder. And for Fox, he was the secret sauce used to spice up its lineup — and the secret weapon called upon to shore up weaknesses and plug the gaps created when its scripted fare went the way of “Terra Nova.”

Although Fox’s primary current challenge wasn’t necessarily of Darnell’s making, oversight of it did fall under his purview — namely, when you hand a fifth of your 15-hour-a-week primetime lineup over to two singing competitions, “American Idol” and its knockoff “The X Factor,” what happens when they suddenly begin to cool? (One can argue the former was undercut by the latter and Simon Cowell’s ego, but for now, what’s done is done.)

During a feisty, thought-provoking session with reporters, Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly talked about refocusing “Idol” back onto the contestants, saying, “It really became too much about the judges.” That makes sense, since recruiting big-name stars has turned into its own version of an escalating and expensive arms race.

Still, the larger question might be whether Fox can gradually begin to pivot away from its heavy reliance on those franchises and specifically “Idol,” which, as was witnessed with ABC and the heady success of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” can be a real bitch when the bill finally comes due.

Not surprisingly, Reilly focused primarily on Fox’s new scripted offerings and the broader state of the TV business, from how same-day ratings fail to illustrate a show’s overall reach to placing the audience for cable and upstarts like Netflix into context. And spreading more premieres throughout the year does create more possibilities to find new hits that can potentially take some of the load off “Idol” and “X Factor.”

In the near term, however, Fox’s fortunes will rest heavily on how well the network does in terms of its attempts to jump-start those programs, or at least ensure they don’t fall any further. By that measure, while Mike Darnell isn’t particularly tall of stature, the programming area he oversaw continues to cast a very long shadow.

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