There's a reason why they call Mike Darnell the "dark prince" of reality TV. Darnell, who on Friday announced his exit as the president of alternative entertainment at Fox, is still best known for his in-your-face fare like Joe Millionaire, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction, The Swan, When Animals Attack and Man vs. Beast.
Some of those shows, like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and Temptation Island, led to juicy TV scandals. (It's why the New York Times once billed him as TV's "point man for perversity.") But Darnell also oversaw the biggest TV phenomenon of the past decade: American Idol, a show that was unbeatable in its prime.
With Idol's erosion and Simon Cowell's X-Factor failing to connect with viewers, it's been a rough season for the exec. But Darnell, who has also been championed as "The World's Scariest Programmer," remains one of TV's most colorful characters and has probably had more impact on popular culture than any other network honcho in recent memory.
TV Guide Magazine talked on Friday with Darnell, who exits at the end of June, about his legacy and what the future holds.
TV Guide Magazine: You considered leaving Fox during your last contract renegotiation in 2010 — but you ended up staying. What happened this time?
Darnell: Every time my contract has come up over the past decade, I've gone through this excruciating decision-making process. This is my family and I love it here. In essence, this is my world. I created this world. And it's very hard to walk away. But I've been here 18 years now, which is a long time. If I'm ever going to try anything new, I have to be bold enough to make that decision. My gut instinct is always not to change. But I had been sitting on the contract for a couple of months, and after Idol was over, I knew I had to make a decision fairly quickly. Ultimately, I said, if I'm going to do it, this is it. Let's go. I meant what I said in my press release. One more time, and I might as well retire here. Which is not a bad thing, I just had to make that decision. There are multiple opportunities out there and I'll now take a deep breath for a week or two and then make a decision.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you want to be a producer or start a production company? Run a cable network? What's the plan?
Darnell: Everything is a "maybe" right now. It's more about the options and what those look like. There's such a wide world now. When I started, this was it. Network television was it. But boy, is that not true anymore. Some of the biggest reality shows are on cable right now. The landscape has changed greatly. I'll stretch my fingers out and try to innovate, the way I did when I first started here.
TV Guide Magazine: Network TV is where there's the least amount of change going on in the reality world. With so many veteran series now entering their second decade, there's not much room to create anything new. Did that play a role in your exit?
Darnell: The wild, wild world of it is in different areas now. I've got a stable of great shows that are mostly sales-friendly, and there's not a lot of room (at Fox) to make crazy shows. So that's part of it. There's so much stuff out there, it seemed crazy not to pursue it. The reality business has exploded, and there are enormous opportunities out there.
TV Guide Magazine: It was a tough year for you, Mike. (Idol and X-Factor both suffered serious audience erosion.) Did that make this decision easier?
Darnell: It was a tough year. It's not unexpected given that Idol is 12 years old and there are like 15 of these shows on the air now. I think, honestly, that maybe that played into it. But it's timing. It's not like I'm a quitter, 18 years is pretty good. And so, it might have been a little bit of that. But it was mostly, when am I going to do this?
TV Guide Magazine: Both Idol and X-Factor will undergo another major overhaul next season, but you won't be there to oversee it. That's going to be an adjustment for both you and Fox.
Darnell: All that stuff is weird for me. It's been my world forever, so it's going to be very weird. I've spoken to some of the people involved with those shows, but not all of them yet.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you know what the plan is yet to replace you?
Darnell: I have no idea. Zero. I always said, if Randy Jackson leaves, I'm gone.
TV Guide Magazine: Speaking of Randy, you would make a great American Idol judge. Why not?
Darnell: You know, that's been suggested before. And (my wife) loves that idea.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about your legacy. Beyond Idol, which is its own beast, what's the show you're still most proud of? Your biggest win?
Darnell: Joe Millionaire. Close second is My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. No one's going to believe this, but also Paradise Hotel. Joe Millionaire's finale is still the highest rated entertainment telecast on this network. And that includes Idol.
TV Guide Magazine: And what's the one that should have been a hit?
Darnell: Off the top of my head, Who's Your Daddy. I thought that was going to work. And I learned many lessons from it.
TV Guide Magazine: You must still be disappointed that you never crashed a plane on TV.
Darnell: And then somebody else did! And someone else did a space jump! When I tried to do those things everyone thought I was out of my mind.