How to rip off Mike Darnell, who shaped reality TV and is leaving Fox

Mike Darnell, Fox’s reality TV executive, is leaving the company after 19 years of overseeing shows from Joe Millionaire to American Idol.

In a cheekily titled press release (“Mike Darnell Votes Himself Out…of Fox Broadcasting Company”), Darnell said that, while he was “offered a new long term contract … I’ve decided it’s time for a change.” Unlike nearly all press releases that announce someone’s exit with bullshit (“to pursue other opportunities”; “to spend more time with family”), this appears to be genuine.

Darnell has been at Fox since 1994, when The Real World and Cops were the only reality series around, and his title was “Director of Specials.” But even then, he knew how to grab viewers’ attention. Remember Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, When Animals Attack!, and Breaking the Magician’s Code? The “tens of thousands of hours of television” he created and/or directed as an executive include the following shows, according to Fox’s release (hence its ALL CAPS ANNOUNCEMENT OF SHOWS IT STILL CARES ABOUT):

“…AMERICAN IDOL (television’s No. 1 series for 9 consecutive seasons), FAMILY GUY, THE X FACTOR, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, MASTERCHEF, HELL’S KITCHEN, KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, Futurama, Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?, Nanny 911, Don’t Forget the Lyrics! and Guinness World Records Primetime; along with popular sensations such as, Joe Millionaire, The Simple Life, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, The Moment of Truth, Trading Spouses and Temptation Island; countless specials like The Billboard Music Awards, The Teen Choice Awards, The Primetime Emmy Awards and The American Country Awards; and noise-making spectacles such as The Swan, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Man vs. Beast, Busted on the Job, World’s Scariest Police Chases, When Animals Attack! and Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.”

What’s most fascinating to me about his career and resume is that the shows he was responsible for are so very different. He isn’t a one-note hack–at worst, he’s a multi-note hack. But that title would only be fair if the only type of reality show Fox aired were crap versions of shamelessly ripped off concepts from other networks (ABC, ahem–most recently, Stars in Danger: The High Dive, although the show that it took its format came first internationally, Fox only ordered it after ABC bought Splash‘s format).

Instead, shows that aired during his tenure range from those with TLC-style freak show titles to high-quality, appointment television. He kicked off the habit of riffing on other genres by airing The Bachelor-like Joe Millionaire, which he told Michael Schneider he’s more proud of than any other show–and, he noted, it had Fox’s most highly-rated entertainment telecast ever.

Speaking of high ratings, there’s American Idol, which is in a death spiral right now but reigned far longer and had a profound impact on television.

Darnell also cited Paradise Hotel as a show he’s proud of, which was super-fun and captured viewers but was impossible to duplicate. Fox tried but failed with Forever Eden. Joe Millionaire also had a sequel that fell flat. Darnell also tried shows that just failed, such as Who’s Your Daddy? and last Thursday’s Does Someone Have to Go?.

In other words, his career was far from perfect, with hit after hit. In addition, I loathe the Fox reality aesthetic illustrated most awfully by Kitchen Nightmares and that crops up on other Fox shows and has spread like a virus elsewhere.

But: I really, truly admire Mike Darnell for doing what he’s done for the past 19 years, and that’s for trying a lot of different kinds of shows. That–not the shitty editing on Kitchen Nightmares, nor the judges-at-a-table, results-show format of American Idol, nor the controversial titles of so many shows–is what I hope the industry learns from his tenure. And by learns, I mean, it’s what others shamelessly rip off like Fox ripped off ABC formats.

Rupert Murdoch, of all people, summed it up perfectly in his press release quotation, saying, “Mike took risks at a critical time and was a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today.”

Yes, he was. And the next person to shape reality TV is not going to be the person who just copies Duck Dynasty and its scripting, but the person who tries something new–and hopefully real.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.