Mike Darnell may not be a household name, but the FOX reality guru’s role in the network’s recent run of success cannot be underestimated. In a Friday (May 24) afternoon release, the man whose legacy includes “American Idol” and “Man vs. Beast” revealed that he will be leaving the network as of the end of June.
The parting of ways appears to be mutual, in that it’s very rare that a network announces an executive departure with both a press release and with a press release utilizing a joke headline: “Mike Darnell Votes Himself Out… Of FOX Broadcasting Company,” the email teases.
“I’m extremely grateful that FOX has offered me a new long term contract (and anyone who knows me won’t believe I’m saying this), but I’ve decided it’s time for a change,” blurbs Darnell, whose official title was “President of Alternative Entertainment.” “With my current deal ending in June, and having been here for 18 years (kind of a record in Hollywood), I had to make a decision: either stay (and basically admit to myself I was going to retire at FOX…not a terrible choice) or leave and try something new. I’ve been in ‘Reality’ since before it was even called that, and it has truly been an amazing ride. However, the world has changed drastically over the last few years and now with hundreds of channels and limitless ways to watch television, I’ve decided this was the perfect time to take advantage of the rapidly changing marketplace. To say I am going to miss everyone here and that the people at FOX are like a family to me would be the understatement of the decade. I have so many people to thank (and I will call all of you!), but first and foremost, I want to thank Kevin Reilly, Peter Rice, Chase Carey and Rupert Murdoch for all their amazing support over these many years.”
Darnell came to FOX in 1994 as “Director of Specials” and he helped shape the network’s direction from the birth of our modern conception of unscripted network TV programming through FOX’s recent period of dominance in the key 18-49 demographic.
Under his watch, the network aired genre-redefining specials like “World’s Scariest Police Chases” and “When Animals Attack” and “Breaking the Magician”s Code: Magic”s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” leading up to “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”
On the series side, FOX found success with early reality offerings including “the Simple Life” and “Temptation Island” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.” You may not remember this now, but “Joe Millionaire” drew over 33 million viewers for its February 2003 finale. And you certainly remember that “American Idol” had a nine-season run as the most popular show on TV. Other Darnell successes under Darnell’s watch include “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” and a ridiculous number of things starring Gordon Ramsay.
Darnell and FOX constantly courted controversy, whether it was undercutting other network’s reality programs with swiftly produced copycats like “Trading Spouses” or this winter’s celebrity diving special, or hastily pulling the game show “Our Little Genius” shortly before its first episode aired.
You can debate the merit and positive impact of Darnell’s impact on FOX, but there’s no quibbling about the size of that impact.
“Mike has been a trailblazer for the entire industry and has made innumerable contributions to the growth and success of the network over the past two decades,” states Fox Networks Group Chairman Peter Rice. “His passion for — and dedication to — television knows no bounds. He is like a member of the family, and FOX won”t be the same without him. While we wish he would”ve stayed forever, we regretfully accept his decision.”
Adds News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, “Mike took risks at a critical time and was a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today. He”s a smart and fearless executive who will be missed.”
The FOX release did not reveal Darnell’s replacement.