Mike Darnell on ‘Little Big Shots,’ ‘The Bachelor,’ Ellen DeGeneres and ‘Love Connection’

Mike Darnell
James Elliot Bailey for Variety

When Mike Darnell arrived at Warner Bros. TV in 2013, he had his work cut out for him. “The sensibility, domestically and internationally, was that basically, reality was dying,” recalls Darnell, president of WB’s unscripted and alternative television. There had not been a successful reality launch since “The Voice,” and the landscape was marked by such high-profile failures as “Rising Star” and “Utopia.” Then came “Little Big Shots,” which the former president of alternative entertainment at Fox developed and sold to NBC. Not only did it succeed in the U.S. but it’s become a success internationally as well, now airing in 21 countries. Armed with that triumph, he’s heading into MipTV hoping to sell a spinoff of the franchise — as well as a few other surprises. Here, he gives Variety a sneak peek of his strategy for the annual convention.

Going into this year’s Mip, what do you want to accomplish?

Several things. I want to increase the amount of countries for “Little Big Shots” now that we’ve got success. The first round was based on the success in America, which got us pretty far. But now that we’ve got success in other countries, we want to explode. I also made a spinoff, which is “Forever Young,” which is our old-person version. We also have two really big plays, “Game of Games” and “Love Connection,” both of which I think have a shot to start taking off.

Why do you think it’s a good idea to spotlight older talent with “Forever Young”?

I’ve had the show running for a couple of months, and my daughter said to me, “Old people are funny, too.” And I thought, “That’s true.” They’re funny in the same exact way that kids are: You never know what they’re going to say, and you’re amazed when they have a unique feat or strength or an amazing skill. The added benefit is host Steve [Harvey, the host] can be a little bluer with them. It feels like a slam-dunk to me. People are watching “Little Big Shots” as a family — grandparents, kids and parents — just like they would “Idol” or “Voice.” This has that same feeling.

James Elliot Bailey for Variety

What about “Love Connection”? Why do you think it is going to work?

No one has brought back a relationship studio game in probably 10 or 15 years. It’s a beloved brand with exactly the right audience from the ’90s and that’s exactly the age everyone is going for right now: people in their 30s. Andy Cohen is so popular, so well-liked; you mention his name and it’s just like something magic. There are very few hosts that have that: Steve Harvey is one of them, Ellen’s another. I think that the combination of a beloved title and an amazingly well-matched host gives us a real shot.

What do you think buyers at Mip are looking for?

I think they’re still looking for what they call “shiny floor shows,” which are the performance shows. I suspect there will still be some of those coming from international sources. And games are very popular internationally. I think if you can come up with a new game or even a revamped game that worked, it’s very easy for them to buy. But here’s the thing: They want shiny floor, but shiny floor’s expensive. Even if you’re a smaller country, it’s still pretty expensive because they have to have a certain look and a certain feel. Game shows can be done quite inexpensively. What “Little Big Shots” did was open a door that shiny floor doesn’t have to be competition, it can be variety and comedic. The thing that made “Little Big Shots” work was, yes it had variety acts, but it’s really a comedy show.

Why do you think there’s been such a resurgence of game shows? Do you think it’s topped out?

What really happened is not an explosion of game shows; it’s ABC taking old formats and putting them back on the air. Now, I am bringing back “Love Connection,” but that’s not really a game show. It’s a relationship show, and I feel like Andy brings this spice to it, so we have a good shot at it. Right now “The Wall” has worked for NBC. I’m sure they will be selling that at Mip. It’s like “Little Big Shots” — all you need is one in the genre to take off and then there’ll be dozens of imitations and then we’ll open the floodgates and maybe a few more will work.

What does it mean to you to have Ellen DeGeneres as a producing partner in your company?

Ellen’s amazing. When I first got [to Warner Bros. TV], she had one complaint: her brand wasn’t being exploited enough. I said, “No problem.” Talk about a win-win. Her brand is amazing. I couldn’t believe, honestly, that no one had been out there attaching her name in any big way to reality shows. So, with her permission, I went out and started selling. Her ability to promote on the show is incredible. Her executive producers are the best in the business. To me, it was like a huge gift when I got here: something that I could really go out and sell. Being a former network buyer, I knew what her name meant.

“Little Big Shots” was the first idea I had when I got here. It’s based on something she had been doing on the show: interviewing these kids with amazing skills. Then we obviously attached her to “First Dates,” which is airing soon on NBC. Her name helped sell that show. And I had been waiting for her to say yes to hosting something, which she did with “Game of Games.” So that was my dream: somewhere along the way, she would say yes to hosting and she finally did.

Let’s talk about “The Bachelor.” What’s the secret to its longevity?

It’s interesting. Obviously Mike Fleiss is an amazing producer. That team really knows what they’re doing. They know how to keep it exciting, entertaining, conflicting, all the things you need for these things to work. But even I am amazed that it is still going in its 21st iteration. That is almost impossible. As I’ve become a part of it, here’s what I’ve come to realize: My daughter’s 18. When her friends got to be 16 or so, they started talking about “The Bachelor” and I think it’s become a rite of passage for young women. I’ve seen no other reality show be able to do that. Since I got here, it was not being exploited internationally, and in the last three or four years, it’s completely taken off. It’s now in 27 countries; it has broken barriers. It’s in Japan. Nobody ever goes to Japan. It’s in China; China is unbelievable for a romance show.

How do you keep reinventing “The Voice” to keep it fresh?

NBC and all the producers refreshing the rules in the first few years it was on the air really was smart: they changed up some of the rounds, they changed up the battle rounds. Really smart move. In addition, because “The Voice” is so judge-centered, the judges are really what drive the show: their banter, their competitiveness. All of that stuff that’s very different from “Idol” and what’s come before it — the keeping of [Adam Levine and Blake Shelton] as your core, but then changing up everything constantly has made it feel refreshed every spring and fall. They took a risk by airing it twice a year, which we didn’t do with “Idol” at Fox, and it’s still working. It’s been really well-run.

How has the transition been for you from having been a buyer to being a seller?

The big thing I was hoping for did come through: when I was at Fox, I did buy a lot of outside ideas, but I also came up with a lot of my own ideas. It was quite unusual. If I had an idea and couldn’t sell it, it was dead. The big difference is now, if I have an idea, if I can’t sell it to them, I can do cable. If I can’t do cable, I can do Netflix.
It’s been a lot of fun coming up with content and then saying, “If one place won’t buy it, we have another place to go.” It’s odd because as a buyer, you think you have all this power, but there’s no freedom; now, we have the freedom to sell everywhere. That’s been a big deal.

To be honest, I inherited three really good companies: Shed, Warner Horizon, Telepictures. We can come up with an idea together and they know how to run with it. It’s been a great transition. When I first started at Fox, networks were the only game. When I left Fox, the game had changed. Some of the craziest stuff was being done on cable, the over-the-top services were coming into their own and now, of course, the craze is with Amazon and Netflix.

What accomplishments are you proudest of this year?

Obviously, “Little Big Shots” and “Game of Games.” But to be honest, those are real because I got Ellen to say yes to hosting [“Game of Games”]. So actually I think the biggest accomplishment is we will be the biggest producer of network television series in the country. It means a lot to the company; it means a lot to me.

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?

There is a lot less money out there because the ratings are smaller. You’re having to do things for less money at some point than you did both in cable and network. NBC Universal is starting an alternative production unit, there’s a push to have the networks own more — the same thing scripted is going through everywhere. Everybody wants to own a piece of the show.