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The late Friday press release announcing that Fox alternative programming chief Mike Darnell is vacating his post after 18 years with the company came as a shock to TV industry observers — and fittingly so, considering he was among the pioneers of the reality genre with such shows as When Animals Attack! and World’s Scariest Police Chases. The bulk of Darnell’s unscripted career, however, was linked to Gordon Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen, MasterChef and Kitchen Nightmares) and American Idol — the show he helped launch in 2002 and grow into a multi-billion dollar brand, and later, the series that kept him up at night.
Still, Darnell insists, the decision “wasn’t about Idol,” telling The Hollywood Reporter, “This was a personal choice. Four years ago, Idol was doing a 25- to 30-share and I was still very close to leaving. I’ve been here 18 years! It’s not quitting, it’s a decision to move that’s really not about the shows. I love all those shows and I’m going to miss those people.”
And judging by reaction to the news, even on a holiday weekend, it seems Darnell will be missed as well. Said Idol host and reality mogul Ryan Seacrest in a statement: “Mike Darnell was a pioneer in reality television. He brilliantly paved the way for all of us, creating a powerful entertainment genre that audiences can’t get enough of. I’ve had the privilege of working with him for more than a decade, and I’ve learned so much from him. He has been an inspiration for imparting his creative genius constantly, a mentor as I launched my production company, as well as a dear friend. I’m excited to work with him as he blazes a new path in his incredible career.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Simon Cowell, who wrote: “I have so much to be grateful to Mike Darnell for. He was one of our biggest supporters at Fox right at the beginning when we launched Idol. His knowledge, skill, kindness and importantly the fact that we became friends through this process were all reasons why we were able to make things happen in such a big way. I will miss him. Publicly I want to tell Mike: ‘A big thank you for everything you have done for me and I hope (and expect!) that we will be working together again in the very near future.'”
So where will he head next? The reality boss is carefully considering his options, as he told THR in an interview two hours after his exit was announced.
The Hollywood Reporter: Your announcement noted that your contract with Fox was expiring in June. How long did you deliberate this decision?
Mike Darnell: For a couple months — and that was excruciating. I considered it four or five years ago. It was a big decision and I got pretty close last time. I love this company; it’s part of my family and I feel like I’m part of the fabric of it. No one else has ever done this job so that’s weird to think of someone else doing this job. … The Gordon Ramsays and the Simon Cowells and the Ryan Seacrests — they’re all friends of mine, so that part’s weird. But ultimately, it was either make the move now or retire here. I had to make that decision, and I felt like if I was ever going to give it a try, now is the time. That’s the truth. That being said, this leap is incredibly difficult for me because I’m leaving behind so much of my life.
THR: It seems like this comes down to the singing shows — X Factor and Idol. Can they be saved?
Darnell: Idol is a brand and a legacy. I think, like all the shows, it’s suffering from a glut, it’s suffering from age and it’s suffering from a general perception that there’s new things on. But it has that brand that makes people want to like it. So can they be saved? You have to nurture them and take a deep breath and realize that none of these shows are going be be what Idol once was — and that includes Idol, which I think will be around for a long time. There could be strong numbers and people will enjoy them and they’ll be great for networks, but unfortunately, like news magazines and forensic shows once were, they are going to keep eating at each other as long as there’s too many of them on.
THR: One of your last acts as reality chief must have been helping put together the new panel of X Factor judges. Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind bringing on Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio?
Darnell: Simon wanted to do something different and there hadn’t been a panel with three women and a man. The truth is, without him you couldn’t do a panel like that because he’s sort of a center piece. I think the other thing that went into that decision is that all of these panelists have been judges — that becomes important because we’ve seen. Because if you’ve never done it before, we don’t know what we’re getting. You might be great, you might be terrible. It’s a skill. It really is. Everybody thinks they can do it but not everybody can. And Simon Cowell is a master at it.
THR: You just signed with WME, what was the thinking behind that?
Darnell: I’ve known Mark Itkin for a really long time — he was one of the first agents I ever worked with. He’s a great agent — probably one of the best in the reality business. But I have not decided what I’m going to do yet. There are many things on the table.
THR: Is another network job a possibility?
Darnell: Nothing is out of the question. … I’m not the kind of executive that sits around and watches the shows. Probably anything I do will include the same kind of producer-ial elements I do now but I’m still deciding.
THR: What frustrated you most about the job?
Darnell: If I had to say something was frustrating, it would be that Idol was the biggest show on TV for 10 years and was something so important to network television, in the fact you can still gather a big audience, but it was pummeled over the last couple of years. Like people wanted it to fail. That bothers me. I can’t imagine that if MASH had been on for 10 years and in its 11th year was losing number, that it would have been pummeled in the same way. That bugged me the most. How about celebrating it for what it is and what it has meant to TV?
THR: In a way, you only have yourself to blame to setting the bar so high…
Darnell: It’s nice that the show enjoyed such a high rise for such a long time, and I know people like to knock the king down. I get it — but man, it’s been brutal! The show is down to regular numbers and still in the top 5 or top 4 of television shows, but it gets killed in the press. Also, now that it’s not getting 30 million viewers, it really is the last of its kind. It’ll never happen again in primetime on a series. Never. It just won’t. There’s just too much television now.
THR: You were present at every single Idol taping and, for the most part, so was your mom. What would she like to see you do next?
Darnell: Of course, in my mom’s eyes, I am amazing. I would do Police Chases and she would say, “That’s the best show on television!” She wants me to be creative — that’s her big thing. As long as I’m doing that and I’m happy, she’ll be thrilled. But I think she’s a little sad, as is my daughter, and will miss going to Idol. I’ll have to make sure I can still get tickets.”
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