In Depth

The Dark Lord: Mike Darnell

President, alternative entertainment, Fox

At an industry panel a year ago, former “American Idol” showrunner Nigel Lythgoe called Mike Darnell “either a brilliant programmer or an evil genius bent on hastening the end of civilization as we know it.” The president of Fox’s alternative department, who also was on the stage, wasted no time chiming in: “The latter,” he said.

TVWeek’s Real Power

Mr. Darnell’s oversized sense of humor and his resume, one of the longest and most dazzling in unscripted TV, make him a giant of the genre.

Before any tribes had spoken or final answers had been delivered, Mr. Darnell was putting on shows that elevated eyebrows everywhere. Remember 1995’s “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction”? “When Animals Attack”? The masked magician of “Breaking the Magicians’ Code”? All were overseen by Mr. Darnell.

Mr. Darnell missed out on “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” but that just gave him a chance to put his wicked twist on the formats (“Temptation Island,” “Greed”). When pal Mike Fleiss did “The Bachelor” for ABC, Mr. Darnell shot back in 2003 with the overnight phenom “Joe Millionaire.”

And while reality historians disagree over some of the details, there’s no denying Mr. Darnell credit for shepherding “American Idol” into a monster hit—and, perhaps even more impressively, keeping it at the top of the ratings for seven seasons. It seems appropriate that he has a full-sized piano in his office and doesn’t hesitate to serenade guests with some Elton John.

Other notable success stories supervised by Mr. Darnell include “The Simple Life,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Celebrity Boxing,” “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and, just last season, “The Moment of Truth.”

But, for better or worse, nobody else in the business has had—or continues to have—as much impact on the world of alternative TV as Mr. Darnell.

Biggest challenge facing the industry: “Standing out. It’s getting harder to get noticed in the crowd because there are so many shows—dozens on networks and hundreds on cable.”