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Reality TV pioneer Mike Darnell has found a new home.
Mere weeks after exiting Fox, the veteran executive is heading to Warner Bros. Television, where he will be president of unscripted and alternative programming and syndicated fare. The move puts Darnell in charge of the studio’s Telepictures first-run syndication division as well as the unscripted efforts at Warner Horizon, which produces American Idol rival The Voice. When Darnell begins his new job on August 12, he will report to Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth.
“It’s what I wanted to do, which is to stretch my fingers out,” Darnell tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview. “There are so many more platforms out there now and Warner Bros. has a great presence in all of them.”
The move, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara‘s first major executive hire since he was elevated to run the studio in January, comes after Darnell spent 18 years at Fox, where he played an integral role in building the network as a destination for edgy, unscripted TV. In his early days there, that meant producing such headline-grabbing specials as When Animals Attack! and World’s Scariest Police Chases. Next came the wave of noisy reality series, such as Temptation Island and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance. And more recently, his unscripted territory has been defined by the bigger, G-rated tent-pole franchises such as American Idol and The X Factor.
Darnell, who got his start as a child actor on such shows as Welcome Back, Kotter, wielded a significant amount of power at the broadcast network, and was famous for being particularly passionate and hands-on with his shows. In the case of Idol, which for years reigned as TV’s most-watched program but has suffered ratings declines in recent seasons, Darnell was present at every taping — often with his mother in tow. The fiercely competitive exec acknowledges that he’ll miss Idol, but allows that Voice is “a good show.”
The new appointment reunites him with Roth, who was president of Fox Entertainment from 1996-1999. Darnell suggests the two have remained close, and that Roth was a leading reason that he took the job. He also has close ties to Voice’s Mark Burnett as well as Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor franchise who made several shows for Darnell at Fox.
“No single person has had a more profound impact on the unscripted and alternative genre than Mike Darnell. His creative instincts, his knack for embracing and capturing the zeitgeist, and his endless desire for discovery have fueled his extraordinary success. There was simply no way we could pass up the opportunity to have him join us at Warner Bros,” says Roth in a statement.
Quips Darnell: “I just wanted to work for another company with a Peter and a Kevin.”
Syndication will be a new world for the longtime unscripted exec, who says he’s excited to pursue both traditional and nontraditional options, but declines to share any of the ideas he has brewing. “It’s wide open,” he adds of the space. Currently, Telepictures is home to such hits as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The People’s Court, Extra and TMZ. Its current and longtime leader Hilary Estey McLoughlin is expected to segue into a producer role, possibly with the studio.
For its part, Warner Horizon, in addition to NBC’s hit The Voice, produces ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and the CW’s Oh Sit!. The division’s executive vp Craig Erwich now will report to Darnell on unscripted programming, while continuing to report directly to Roth on scripted matters. (The studio produces such series as Pretty Little Liars and Rizzoli & Isles.) Darnell will also serve as the studio’s creative point person in its relationship with Shed Media U.S.
News of Darnell’s departure hit the industry by surprise on a holiday weekend in late May. At that time, he told The Hollywood Reporter that there were “many things on the table,” noting only that “anything I do will include the same kind of producer-ial elements.”
In the weeks since, there has been speculation that he could ink a producing deal at one of the unscripted behemoths such as Idol producer FremantleMedia or head to a cable network. (Darnell confirms he had offers to do both.) The latter, some argued, would allow Darnell to dabble in the kind of edgier, more niche themes, for which he once had great success but don’t draw an audience big enough for broadcast today. As Darnell, the genre’s tireless cheerleader, noted in an interview with THR last fall: “I’ve always had a gut instinct to try to push the envelope, and when allowed, I’ll do it.”
The position at Warner Bros., which will have Darnell focused on both broadcast and cable, has been created specifically for him. Asked what he hopes people will say about the programming that he ultimately decides to produce thee: “That it’s edgy,” says Darnell, adding: “with attitude.”
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