It seems an oversight that this is the first time Mike Darnell has graced TelevisionWeek’s “12 to Watch” list.
Throughout his tenure running reality programming at Fox, his projects have resulted in outraged newspaper editorials and Nielsen spikes. Even when a proposed show didn’t actually air (the O.J. Simpson quasi-confessional), the proposal went down with kicking and screaming headlines.
Last year Mr. Darnell was seriously courted for a production deal by newly installed NBC Co-Chair Ben Silverman. After a protracted period of wrestling with his decision, Mr. Darnell elected to renew his Fox contract, as those who knew him best assumed he would. Mr. Darnell, went the conventional wisdom, likes to call the shots.
Fox should be relieved at his choice, especially after the writers strike shut down scripted programming. Mr. Darnell’s brand of aggressive reality is now more in demand than ever.
Along with the seventh edition of “American Idol” premiering this month, in February Mr. Darnell will unveil his latest creation, game show “The Moment of Truth.” Based on a successful international format, contestants are strapped to a lie detector and asked increasingly personal questions.
Mr. Darnell’s most inflammatory-sounding ideas tend to be the shortest-lived (“Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire” and “Man vs. Beast” were specials; “Joe Millionaire” effectively worked for one season), but he’s confident “Moment” will hold up.
“Since it operates like a game, it has a lot of sustainability,” Mr. Darnell said. “There’s a play-along aspect.”
The gender sendup “When Women Rule the World” is another potentially eyebrow-raising reality project, but the show has been pushed back to summer—purportedly to give a better slot this spring to Fox’s scripted projects “New Amsterdam” and “Canterbury’s Law,” which had been slated for Fridays.
“We’re not moving ‘Women’ to summer because it’s bad. We just wanted to give it a shot outside of Friday,” he said. “If the strike keeps going, you gotta give every one of your scripted shows every shot you can.”
Although the strike halted production of Fox’s scripted hits “24” and “House,” Mr. Darnell said his marching orders this season are unchanged.
“It’s the same mandate as always: to get one successful television show with the help of ‘Idol,’” he said. “If that show is ‘Moment of Truth,’ I’ll be thrilled.”
Another of Mr. Darnell’s shows to keep an eye on this spring is “Hell’s Kitchen,” the summer hit that’s been given a spring slot due to the strike.
“This biggest difference [in this year’s reality lineup] is ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ which is going to get that post-‘Idol’ slot that it really deserves,” Mr. Darnell said. “It’s been the No. 1 show in summer and could end up being so much bigger.”
Indeed, “Hell’s” chef Gordon Ramsay has become Fox’s first year-round reality star this season, with “Kitchen Nightmares” performing respectably on Wednesday nights last fall.
As for “Idol,” most reality shows tend to follow a predictable ratings bell curve of rising, then falling. With the “Idol” season average dipping last year for the first time in its history, many wonder if the show is now in its inevitable decline phase. Mr. Darnell won’t make a prediction.
“I’ll give you this: It’s going to be the biggest show on television by a mile,” he said. “For years we’d say it would probably go down a little bit, but it’s so much bigger than the next-biggest show. I can’t predict it. I don’t know except it’s going to be huge.”
AT A GLANCE
Name: Mike Darnell
Title: President of alternative entertainment, Fox
How long in current position: Six months as president, but he has been running the department since 1997
Year of birth: 1962
Place of birth: Philadelphia
What to watch for: His new game show “The Moment of Truth” and the seventh season of “American Idol”
Who knew? A Los Angeles Dodgers fan, he sang the National Anthem to a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium in 1988.