President title is alternate ending
EmptyFox Broadcasting Co.'s reality chief Mike Darnell is staying put with a bigger title and greater autonomy.
After mulling for a couple of months whether to continue at Fox, where he has worked for the past 13 years, or make a switch to producing, Darnell opted to stay at the network with a rich new multiyear deal.
He has been upped to president of alternative programming, the first alternative department head to hold a president title. He also has been given creative control over Fox's unscripted development and authority to greenlight pilots, presentations and specials.
"I've been taking creative control anyway; now it has been given to me contractually," Darnell quipped.
Even before the promotion from executive vp, Darnell already enjoyed greater autonomy and more power than his counterparts at the other networks. His department -- a close-knit group of executives -- often has been compared to a fiefdom within the network because of Darnell's style of running it as a quasi-independent unit.
Darnell's previous contract with Fox expired July 1. While re-upping had been routine in the past, this time around it took a great effort by News Corp. to keep the reality guru, whose trademark brand of outrageous reality projects had become a key part of the network's identity.
While talking to Fox, Darnell fielded lucrative offers from seven suitors, including NBC, Endemol USA and RDF USA, to join them as a producer -- a position that potentially could bring tens of millions of dollars a year if he has a hit show.
"Making the decision to stay or leave was nightmarish," Darnell said. "I was flattered and amazed at the offers, and I took everything very seriously."
Ultimately, "Fox really stepped up and matched the other offers, and then it was just an emotional decision," he said. "I thought, 'This is my home,' and the thing that made the decision easier was the people."
Darnell said recent executive changes at Fox that saw Kevin Reilly joining the network as entertainment president and Peter Liguori upped to chairman didn't play a role in his decision to stay.
It is not clear to whom Darnell reports now. In an unusual twist, that information has been classified per his new contract. In his previous capacity as executive vp specials and alternative programming, Darnell reported to the entertainment president.
Even with a president title, Darnell doesn't plan to give up his supercasual dress code of jeans and cowboy boots for a suit and a tie.
"As I became president, maybe the other presidents will start dressing like me," he said.
Darnell, whose department shepherds television's biggest show, "American Idol," also developed such hits as "Joe Millionaire," "Hell's Kitchen," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and, most recently, the promising newcomer "Don't Forget the Lyrics."
He has introduced to TV audiences such controversial noisemakers as "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" and "Temptation Island" and has aggravated the other networks by quickly and stealthily putting together similarly themed series to theirs as he did with "Lyrics" and NBC's "The Singing Bee," "Trading Spouses" and ABC's "Wife Swap," "The Next Great Champ" and NBC's "The Contender," among others.
While Darnell passed on the opportunity to leave the executive ranks and become a producer this time around, he said that option is still in the cards for the future.
"Someday, I'd want to produce and make my own product and own my shows," he said.