Reality TV pioneer Mike Darnell has found a new home.
Mere weeks after exiting Fox, the veteran executive is heading to Warner Bros. Television, where he will be president of unscripted and alternative programming as well as syndicated fare. The move puts Darnell in charge of the reality genre for the studio's Telepictures division as well as Warner Horizon, which produces American Idol rival The Voice. When Darnell begins his new job August 12, he will report to Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth.
"It's what I wanted to do, which is to stretch my fingers out," Darnell tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview. "There are so many more platforms out there now and Warner Bros. has a great presence in all of them."
The move, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara's first major executive hire since he was elevated to run the studio in January, comes after Darnell spent 18 years at Fox, where he played an integral role in building the network as a destination for edgy, unscripted TV. In his early days there, that meant producing such headline-grabbing specials as When Animals Attack! and World’s Scariest Police Chases. Next came the wave of noisy reality series, such as Temptation Island and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance. And more recently, his unscripted territory has been defined by the bigger, G-rated tent-pole franchises such as American Idol and The X Factor.
Darnell, who got his start as a child actor on such shows as Welcome Back, Kotter, wielded a significant amount of power at Fox, and was famous for being particularly hands-on with his shows. In the case of Idol, which reigned for years as TV's most-watched program but has suffered ratings declines in recent seasons, Darnell was present at every taping -- often with his mother in tow. The fiercely competitive exec acknowledges that he'll miss Idol, but notes that Voice is "a good show."
The new appointment reunites Darnell with Roth, who was president of Fox Entertainment from 1996–1999. Darnell also has close ties to Voice's Mark Burnett as well as Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor franchise who made several shows for Darnell at Fox. Quips Darnell: "I just wanted to work for another company with a Peter and a Kevin."
Syndication will be a new world for the longtime unscripted exec, who says he's exited to pursue both traditional and nontraditional options, but declines to share any of the ideas he has brewing. "It's wide open," he adds of the space. Currently, Telepictures is home to such hits as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The People's Court, Extra and TMZ. It current and longtime leader Hilary Estey McLoughlin is expected to segue into a producer role, possibly with the studio.
Warner Horizon, in addition to NBC's hit The Voice, produces ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and The CW's Oh Sit!. The division's executive vp Craig Erwich now will report to Darnell on unscripted programming, while continuing to report directly to Roth on scripted matters.
News of Darnell’s departure hit the industry by surprise on a holiday weekend in late May. At that time, he told The Hollywood Reporter that there were “many things on the table,” noting only that “anything I do will include the same kind of producer-ial elements.”
In the weeks since, there has been speculation that he could head ink a producing deal at one of the unscripted behemoths such as Idol producer Freemantle or head to a cable network. The latter, some argued, would allow Darnell to dabble in the kind of edgier, more niche themes, for which he once had great success but don't draw an audience big enough for broadcast today. As Darnell, the genre's tireless cheerleader, quipped in an interview with THR last fall: "I've always had a gut instinct to try to push the envelope, and when allowed I'll do it."
The position at Warner Bros., which will have Darnell focused on both broadcast and cable, has been created specifically for him.