Reality Chief Mike Darnell Let Fox Stew, But Renewed

Fox's "Idol Gives Back," which featured (among many others) Josh Groban and the African Children's Choir, earned the network a special Emmy award. (By Matt Sayles -- Associated Press)
By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fox has locked in the services of its reality-TV programming chief, Mike Darnell, after he put the network through the wringer while gleefully entertaining offers from several other places, including NBC.

Darnell, who's prone to using expressions such as "pixie dust" when describing to reporters his programming development strategy, is the exec to thank for "American Idol," the show that, the past two Januarys, has catapulted Fox from an also-ran to No. 1 among the 18-to-49-year-olds the broadcast networks target. Fox had never before won a TV season in that key demographic group. You can understand why Fox was anxious to retain Darnell.

And yet, he had been without a contract since the start of July; it was the first time Darnell had not been re-upped before his contract expired since joining the network in '94 (he worked for the Fox Television Station Group for a few years before that, as director of specials). One wonders why Fox allowed this to happen.

Darnell is a live wire with endless enthusiasm for reality TV. We believe he is the only broadcast network programming exec who gets out of bed to attend the pre-dawn nominations announcement for the Primetime Emmy Awards each July to see how many his shows have snagged (other network suits send flunkies with instructions to call them at home if their shows receive nods). Darnell says he shows up for his wife, Carolyn Oberman-Darnell, who is an Emmy campaign consultant, helping producers and studios mount promotional and marketing campaigns to snag trophies for their programs.

Darnell clearly was having fun procrastinating on a new Fox contract while those other offers poured in, including one to set himself up as an indie producer at NBC's Universal Media Studios. When Darnell showed up in the back of the room for a Q&A session on his "So You Think You Can Dance?" competition series at the recently concluded Summer TV Press Tour 2007, he made a point of telling the reporters they should not read anything into his appearance on one of Fox's tour days -- he was there only to support the show.

(Other reality series in Darnell's résumé include "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," "Hell's Kitchen," "Don't Forget the Lyrics," "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," "Temptation Island" and the infamous "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" Darnell's also notorious for preempting new high-profile reality projects at other networks with suspiciously similar series of his own. ABC has "Wife Swap," Fox has "Trading Spouses"; NBC announces "The Contender," Fox announces "The Next Great Champ" -- and Darnell shows up at a press tour Q&A session dressed in bright silk boxing shorts.)

Yesterday, Darnell told The TV Column that the more time he took to make up his mind, the more offers came in, and they kept getting bigger. In the end, he decided to remain at Fox, but only after the network promoted him to president of alternative entertainment and put in contract form his loose-cannon status at the network. He's free to greenlight reality series pilots and specials, has creative control, blah, blah, blah. Nobody is talking about to whom Darnell reports -- not that it really matters.

* * *

Speaking of "American Idol," the nation's most watched program has finally won its very first Primetime Emmy Award.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences says it's giving its 2007 Governors Award to the singing competition series for its two-day "Idol Gives Back" broadcast, in which the Idolettes wound up serving as the backdrop so pop celebs could take credit for raising more than $75 million to benefit relief programs for children living in poverty in the United States and Africa.

"Idol Gives Back" will share the award with HBO's "The Addiction Project," a 14-part series by documentary filmmakers on understanding and treating addiction. The pay-cable network opened its signal and streamed the program to make it available to as many people as possible.

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