Fox's Mike Darnell: Did He Jump, or Was He Pushed?

Issue 37 BIZ Mike Darnell - H 2012
Austin Hargrave

Issue 37 BIZ Mike Darnell - H 2012

The reality chief claimed the exit was his decision, but sources say "American Idol's" plunging ratings are likely at fault; Darnell tells THR, "I can't imagine that if 'M*A*S*H' had been on for 10 years … it would have been pummeled the same way."

This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's hardly business as usual for an industry executive to announce a purely voluntary resignation on the Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend -- especially when that executive is leaving to pursue unspecified "opportunities." But that's the storyline Fox and Mike Darnell were selling May 24 when the pioneering reality chief announced he will exit after 18 years at the company.

A number of sources believe that the simplest explanation is correct: Darnell succumbed to the dramatic drop in American Idol ratings (the May 16 finale was down 40 percent, and the median viewer age jumped to 51.2) combined with the fading of the crass reality genre (When Animals Attack) that once worked so well for Fox. The soft May 23 debut of Darnell's latest effort, the layoffs competition Does Someone Have to Go?, reinforces the point.

Fox had enjoyed an eight-year run as the top network in the 18-to-49 demo thanks to Idol, but this year saw its ratings drop 20 percent as it finished the season second to CBS and only a fraction of a point ahead of beleaguered NBC.

PHOTOS: Mike Darnell's Greatest Hits: 'American Idol,' 'Kitchen Nightmares' and 'The Swan'

Observers say Darnell, 51, had a strained relationship with Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly, who added oversight of reality programming to his portfolio in August. (Fox and Darnell deny any difficulties.) Darnell also was a key member of the team that hired Idol judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, who did not go over well with the show's core fans. Beyond that, says a source, Darnell was so deeply involved in Idol that he was perceived as an obstacle to the kind of revamp the show needs.

It's clear the intense scrutiny of Idol's ratings got to Darnell. "I can't imagine that if M*A*S*H had been on for 10 years and its 11th year was losing numbers that it would have been pummeled the same way," he tells THR. "That bugged me the most." A talent rep says even though he believes Darnell was pushed, the exec likely wanted to explore becoming a seller. (He's signed to be repped by WME.) Another associate says Darnell has "always felt much safer and more powerful" in his network job but now, "Idol is dying on the vine and his era is waning. I think he finally is just getting up the guts to strike out there on his own."


Darnell’s Wild Hits & Misses

The Simple Life, 2003
The pioneering docusoap was Paris Hilton’s breakthrough.

Joe Millionaire, 2003
The finale drew a whopping 40 million viewers.

Hell’s Kitchen, 2005
Darnell brought chef Gordon Ramsay to U.S. TV.

Playing It Straight, 2004
Women tried to discern which men were gay.

The Swan, 2004
A plastic surgery game show and beauty pageant.

Stars in Danger: High Dive, 2013
A celebreality belly flop.