Fox finds its knight-errant

Times Staff Writer

Although he's a slightly built fellow who stands 5 feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds, Mike Darnell will apparently carry the Fox network on his shoulders through the balance of the television season.

Spectacular ratings for Tuesday's premiere of the second "American Idol," coupled with the allure of the twisted dating show "Joe Millionaire," are salvaging what began as a dismal year for Fox, and both programs come under the aegis of Darnell, the network's executive vice president of alternative series and specials.

Tuesday's 90-minute "American Idol" premiere averaged nearly 26 million viewers, which, excluding major sports events, qualifies as the most-watched night in Fox's history. The audience far surpassed expectations, exceeding the first talent showcase's September finale by roughly 3 million. Nielsen Media Research estimates almost 40 million people watched at least a portion of the broadcast.

"I'm flabbergasted by these numbers," Darnell said, adding that he has "always been able to hatch ideas that got noticed."

Because Fox airs 15 hours of prime-time programming a week -- a third less than CBS, ABC or NBC -- the 2 1/2 hours of "American Idol" (playing twice a week into May) and "Joe Millionaire" will have an even greater impact in boosting the network's average. Fox will also milk the "Idol" franchise on Thursdays by featuring interviews with contestants in its newsmagazine "The Pulse," which premieres next week.

Although Fox is fourth in overall prime-time viewing as well as in drawing the young adults most prized by advertisers, the network could leap-frog older-skewing CBS by the latter measure, meaning that CBS might finish the season first in total audience but fourth in the key age 18 to 49 demographic.

The string of hits represents a coup for Darnell, whom producers credit with a gift for championing outlandish concepts that tap into public tastes, even if it's merely a morbid sense of curiosity, such as the "Celebrity Boxing" specials.

"When you make this many hits, it's not a fluke," said LMNO Productions President Eric Schotz, who produced "Boot Camp" and "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska" for the network and calls Darnell "a tightrope walker."

Fox has already stated that the network will employ a "reality wheel" Monday nights at 9 -- where producer David E. Kelley's legal drama "Girls Club" lasted a mere two episodes -- with another provocative Darnell concept dealing with arranged marriages, "Married by America," to follow "Joe Millionaire's" eight-week run.

After a stretch in 2000 when Darnell's future was clouded by post-broadcast revelations regarding "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" -- a former girlfriend had obtained a restraining order against the would-be groom -- the executive now seems more firmly ensconced than ever. Darnell maintains that he never feared that the genre was in jeopardy, saying it has "always been a part of television" in one form or another.

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