By Joe Flint and Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
7:00 AM PDT, May 25, 2013
The man considered to be the godfather of reality television is stepping down.
Mike Darnell, head of alternative entertainment for Fox Broadcasting, is leaving the network after almost two decades overseeing both the good — "American Idol" — and the lowbrow — "When Animals Attack."
"It was like Masterpiece Theatre of stupidity," said Robert Thompson, a professor of American popular culture at Syracuse University. "We were used to cop shows, lawyers and doctors and feel-good sitcoms. He gave us police chases, animals attacking people and folks getting married in the span of two hours. It was terribly exciting."
Considered a visionary for turning schlock into success, the diminutive Darnell became one of the most powerful and controversial executives within Fox and its parent company, News Corp. His willingness to make up his own rules, along with his eccentric style — he favored jeans and cowboy hats, and blocked all the windows in his office to keep out the sun — endeared him to the top brass at the company.
Describing Darnell as "smart" and "fearless," News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch said: "Mike took risks at a critical time and was a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today."
Fox has not announced a replacement for Darnell.
While Darnell's programming brought big ratings and revenue to Fox, he was often loathed by TV critics for the violent and raunchy content he championed, including "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," "World's Scariest Police Chases" and "Temptation Island."
"I've been called many things, including Evil Prince; I'm fine with it all," Darnell said in an interview.
Sometimes his shows blew up on him and the network. That was the case with "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," a beauty pageant-style twist that fell apart when it was revealed that the actual net worth of groom Rick Rockwell was less than advertised and that there was a restraining order against him.
For the last decade, Darnell has been most closely associated with "American Idol," the hit talent show that for many years was the biggest program on television and the linchpin of Fox's prime-time schedule. Darnell played a key role in shaping the show, based on a British hit called "Pop Idol" and brought to Fox's attention by Liz Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch.
Idol judge Simon Cowell credited Darnell for his deft touch in managing the show.
"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," Cowell said.
Overseeing "American Idol" was quite a juggling act. Darnell managed the big-name judges battling for the limelight — including Cowell, Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler — along with amateur contestants getting their first taste of fame and media scrutiny.
Scores of executives watched and analyzed the show's every move.
"His ability to maneuver between the judges, executives and talent, and really bring out the best in everyone, was a feat to be admired," said Eric Sherman, who managed Tyler during the Aerosmith singer's stint on the show.
"American Idol" ratings have tumbled in the last few years, and the show is probably going to be overhauled over the next several months. Randy Jackson, the last remaining judge from the show’s premiere in 2002, has left and the other judges — Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj — are also expected to be replaced.
Darnell's own future at Fox has also been a subject of recent speculation given the woes of "American Idol." The 50-year-old said he was offered a new contract but decided that if he didn't leave now, he'd never leave.
"It's time for a change," he said.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times