Reality TV: THR's 50 Most Powerful List
When Darnell arrived at Fox in 1994, the earliest form of reality programming — shows such as World’s Scariest Police Chases and When Animals Attack — fell under the category of “specials.”
Internally, staffers referred to them as “filler,” while outside, many simply called them junk, but there was no denying one fact. “It was doing gangbusters for us,” Darnell recalls proudly. Almost two decades later, the 49-year-old who’s seen his two daughters grow up alongside hit shows like American Idol, The X Factor and So You Think You Can Dance, is singing a similar tune.
“Honestly, the networks wouldn’t know what to do without reality shows,” he says. “To get them through the season, they’ve become so important.”
It’s a reality Fox is intimately familiar with: American Idol, even with a 25 percent dip in 2012, still is topping the ratings scoreboard after 11 years. Darnell credits the power of pedigree. Lots of shows, he says, “are new and interesting for a moment, as we saw with The Voice, but Idol is the staple. It’s the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the Today show — a brand.”
As for unscripted fare in general, Darnell says it started getting respect in the 2000s, and now that it’s a “mature” genre, it’s time to look to the next big thing: relationship shows. Fox has two in the works, the speed-dating challenge Take Me Out and The Choice, a play on The Voice that involves potential couples.
“There hasn’t been a good relationship show since The Bachelor, and that was a decade ago,” he says. “Over the years, you learn -- when someone says a genre is dead, that’s exactly when you want to come out with a show. Right now, there’s a definite hole there.”