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This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It seems only fitting that the mastermind behind Who’s Your Daddy?, Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island would have one of Hollywood’s most eccentric offices. In place of the white walls and sterile furniture that decorate the other rooms on the Fox lot are a piano (played often), a life-size stuffed tiger (a gift from the Hotel Hell crew), a treadmill (rarely used), an electric fireplace (always on) and double-duty blackout shades to ensure no light will seep in. There, Fox’s longtime reality guru Mike Darnell, 50, who joined the network nearly two decades ago when such unscripted efforts as World’s Scariest Police Chases and When Animals Attack were considered “filler” (or worse, “junk”), regularly pores over hundreds of pitches in his bid to find the next American Idol. To date, his Simon Cowell-fronted follow-up, The X Factor, luring about 10 million viewers in its recently launched second season, hasn’t proved to be it. He’ll try again with Does Someone Have to Go?, a layoff-themed series that was developed — and tabled — years earlier as the country weathered a recession. The married father of one, who broke into Hollywood as a child actor (Welcome Back, Kotter is among his early credits) before moving into news and specials, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter on Oct. 9 to discuss Idol‘s backstage drama with new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, the NBC show he wishes was on his air and why that singing-show summit that Cowell proposed isn’t going to happen.
The Hollywood Reporter: The Mariah Carey/Nicki Minaj feud is getting a lot of attention. Will we see this drama onscreen next spring?
Mike Darnell: First of all, it’s an exceptionally good panel. Part of the complaints we’ve had over the last several years, even though we’ve had some really good judges, is that they all agree. Actually, the whole genre has this issue, right? That includes The Voice and X Factor. Thank God I have Simon because at least I have someone who doesn’t agree all the time. So we sought to get a group that would have diverse opinions. The banter is amazing. It’s fun, funny, energetic; there’s almost never a lull — there’s cross-talk. There’s everything you want. To get that, we have a very opinionated, passionate group, and so there has been some drama.
THR: So will we see any of the feud on the actual show?
Darnell: I don’t know what you’ll see yet, but I will tell you that the vast majority of what’s on tape is what I just described: a great, passionate, amazing panel that’s working beautifully.
THR: Does media’s focus on the drama concern you?
Darnell: No, I’m not concerned. I think the buzz has been great on the show. People are talking about it months and months before it comes on. I might be concerned if it wasn’t going so well.
THR: Is all controversy good in reality TV?
Darnell: If a show has controversy surrounding it, that almost never works. If it has controversy that has something to do with something that’s in the show, then people will come. We put on Who’s Your Daddy? [in which an adoptee tried to figure out his or her biological father] years ago, and we really thought it was going to work; it didn’t because all of the talk about that show was about the adoption community being upset at the premise; none of it was about what was within the show. It was the same thing when CBS did [its Lord of the Flies-style series] Kid Nation. All of the buzz was about the kids and labor laws. You didn’t need to tune in to see how it played out, so no one cared.
THR: You’ve been doing this a long time. What’s the wackiest pitch you’ve ever received?
Darnell: It was called I’ve Got a Monkey on My Back. I thought it was drug-related, but that’s not what it was. It literally was about people having a monkey on their back as they raced across the country. We got one for Big Brother with puppets, too. They’d either vote for the person or the puppet to be out every week.
THR: When the reality craze took off in the early 2000s, you had shock shows like The Swan that were huge. Fair to say people are less interested in that genre today?
Darnell: It’s very hard to shock now. Every time I would do something back then, it’d be the end of Western civilization. And then we’d be copied ad infinitum, and it’d become acceptable. I’ve always had a gut instinct to try to push the envelope, and when allowed, I’ll do it. Probably the last thing I had on that was real pushy was The Moment of Truth [in which contestants would answer personal questions while strapped to a lie detector], and that certainly got noticed and did well. But over the years, the genre has matured, and it has become more of a staple, which has made it generally more sales-friendly. The ones that have survived have been very sales-friendly shows like Idol and X Factor.
THR: Critics long have detested reality. Do reviews matter?
Darnell: To be honest, if a critic likes a reality show, that means you’re dead. Generally speaking, that means the reality show’s not going to work because it usually means there’s something highbrow or aspirational about it. Think about it, you’re not going to get a lot of good reviews for Jersey Shore.
THR: How close are we to saturation point for the singing genre?
Darnell: It’s oversaturated already. Anybody who denies that is crazy. We’re part of it. And I guarantee you that you’ll see five more within a year, all of which will probably go by the wayside like [ABC’s] Duets. And the glut is causing all of the ships to sink a little bit.
THR: Do you regret adding a second singing show with X Factor?
Darnell: No. When you have success of the magnitude of Idol, you’re going to have imitators. So the tide was inevitable. And Simon was leaving Idol, and there was no way I was letting him go to another network. We’re thrilled to have it. The truth is, Idol‘s not quite as big as it was, but it still does enormous numbers, and we never had anything in the fall. Now we’ve got one doing really good numbers in the fall, too. So for us, we spread the wealth.
THR: Cowell recently suggested a singing-show summit for the competing programs and networks. What would that look like?
Darnell: I can’t imagine that happening. I love Simon, but for me that would be like Pepsi sitting down with Coke and saying, “Let’s all get together and make sure all of our sodas taste great.” I think there’s mutual respect for each other, but ultimately we’re competitors trying to beat each other.
THR: Do you watch The Voice?
Darnell: I have watched The Voice. I would prefer not to give an opinion on it.
THR: Judges on these shows are commanding eight-figure fees. At what point does it become impractical?
Darnell: I think you’ll know when that ceiling is hit. And I guess my real answer is, I hope we’ve hit it. I will say this about the numbers: a lot of them are fake, elevated or inflated, which drives us crazy because it impacts the next person you’re going to cast who thinks that that’s the real number. So there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it is put out by camps that don’t get the jobs and by camps that do.
THR: You currently have three Gordon Ramsay series on the air. Is there a world in which you’d do more?
Darnell: I’m never going to say never, I’m telling you that right now. If he came up with another show, I’d probably try it. One of the things that makes people like Gordon or Simon work is that there’s a guttural sense that what they’re saying is what they think. It isn’t bulls—.
THR: NBC’s Paul Telegdy said he wished Gordon Ramsay was on NBC. Who do you wish was on Fox but isn’t?
Darnell: First, let me say to Paul, “Too bad because he’s not leaving.” I’d like History’s Pawn Stars. That’s a great show. It’s addictive and easy. I’d like NBC’s America’s Got Talent, too. Honestly, I’m sorry that I didn’t pick that show up. It stands alone in the genre, which is what I like about it.
THR: You’re moving forward with your layoff show, Does Someone Have to Go? Why is it OK now, when it wasn’t a few years ago?
Darnell: There was a big economic crisis going on, and I had seen some news segment about a businesswoman who needed to either get rid of someone or lower everybody’s salaries. I thought there was something there. And then Endemol was pitching a show called Toxic Office. I’m a sucker for anything about offices, so I combined the ideas. In every office, there’s some idiot who works with you who the boss thinks is great, but if it was up to you guys, you’d get rid of him, so I thought everybody was going to love it. But the press took the angle of, “Oh my God, they’re laying people off in this economic environment.” The show is not about economics anymore; it’s about a dysfunctional office, and we’re not making it mandatory, so you can get rid of someone if you think that’s going to help the office.
THR: What tweaks have you made to Britney Spears’ performance on X Factor?
Darnell: She was pretty good from the start, but over the course of a few audition episodes, she got better and better at it. And she’s much tougher than we thought. When you’re bad, she’s curt and to the point. A lot of judges don’t know how to do that. They’re scared of that, and their instinct is to be kind instead of just telling it like it is.
THR: For years, you were famously obsessed with the ratings. Is that still the case?
Darnell: I’m still very attached to the shows and very attached to the ratings. I’m a big numbers guy; always have been. I can tell you every rating of every show we ever did, and I’ve known how to read ratings since I was 12 or 13 years old. I used to go get the fall TV Guide issue and try to figure out what was going to be successful without ever seeing the shows, all based on my gut instinct – and I was right most of the time. And I used to go to the library and get the encyclopedia and memorize the top 40 shows from every year, too.
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Tracee Ellis Ross