As the president of alternative programming at Fox, Mike Darnell developed a well-earned reputation as a showman with a wicked mind. "I usually like to take a pitch and twist it into something more evil or more dangerous," says Darnell, who was once called "Fox's Point Man For Perversity" by the New York Times.
Darnell, the man behind some of the most notorious reality series and specials on television over the past two decades, left Fox at the end of July. He's now moving on to Warner Bros. Television Group as president of unscripted and alternative TV.
It's the end of an era for Fox, which meets reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour on Thursday without Darnell for the first time in decades. Network execs are still mulling Darnell's replacement. (Among names that have been rumored for the job: National Geographic Channels CEO David Lyle and president Howard T. Owens; Sharon Levy, Spike TV's executive vice president of original series; and Nigel Lythgoe Productions president Kary McHoul; among others).
American Idol was easily the biggest hit on Darnell's watch, but we all know the ins and outs of that show. Now that he's exiting Fox, we asked Darnell to recount the rest of his greatest reality hits — and misses.
Joe Millionaire (2003): "My friend and colleague Mike Fleiss was having success with The Bachelor. I'm very competitive and we decided to answer that. The original idea was, what if we got someone rich, told the girls he was poor, and then revealed it in the end? Then we decided it would be more aggressive and more fun to say he was rich, but in the end reveal he was poor. It was proving a point that a lot of women are in it for the money. It was still the best twist we ever did."
Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? (2000): "We found Rick Rockwell and it was this huge smash. Then we learned some lessons. He wasn't really a multi-millionaire. To be a millionaire you had to add up everything he was going to make for the rest of his life. Then, we found out there was a restraining order out against him, from an ex-girlfriend. This was the first time we ever did a show where we even tried to do a background check. It blew up horribly, and for two weeks it was very scary. But it ended up being one of the most memorable things we ever did and it set the stage for what was to come."
Temptation Island (2001): "Our rule was no children. One of the couples lied on their application. We decided to play into the reality that they lied to us and that was the biggest episode of the series. We kicked them off. Sometimes the best thing to do is not cover up when you have a problem, but in reality TV, to expose it."
My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (2004): "Both of our contestants, female and male, would be in on the fact that they were both playing. Somewhere along the line, we realized that it would be even better if we could do the twist on her. She knows she's in it to fake out the family, but she thinks the other guy is a contestant; she doesn't know he's an actor. It was a twist on a twist on a twist. That was the most harrowing experience of my career. It was a possibility every day of shooting that we were going to lose the show. She was ready to crack at any moment."
The Swan (2004): "Every week these women have massive surgery and everything about them is fixed. And then they don't see themselves for three months. It was taking these makeover shows and multiplying it by 100. Amazing drama, human emotion and voyeurism."
Who's Your Daddy? (2005): "On paper it seemed like a great idea. We mixed the reunion genre with the dating genre. Put eight men in a house, but instead of looking for a date the contestant decides which one is her father. As soon as the adoption community heard about it, they went on a rampage."
The Littlest Groom (2004): "We were twisting the dating genre as much as we could. Hey, let's use little people. They deserve relationships too. Being a short guy myself, I've got a little bit of a connection to it. "
Man vs. Beast (2003): "I had a bunch of little people pulling a plane vs. an elephant. I honestly cannot tell you what corner of my brain came up with that idea. I had a bear eating hot dogs in competition with Kobayashi, the hot dog eating champion. It was no contest, they bear was much quicker. But trying to get a giraffe to run against an Olympic runner was a pain in the ass."
Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? (1995): "It looked like 17 minutes of an alien being autopsied. Kodak told us, based on the markings on the footage, it could be either from 1947 or 1967. That was good enough for me. Ten years later, I did a show revealing hoaxes, and one of them was Alien Autopsy. I figured if someone was going to reveal it, I was."
When Animals Attack! (1996): "The highlight was season two. We had a deer attacking a guy and it was just shockingly interesting. It turns out that hunter had put deer urine on him to provoke it without knowing how bad it would get."
Breaking the Magicians Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed (1997): "I went with my in-laws to the Magic Castle. After the show, I was quizzing the magician how they did it. Of course he said he couldn't tell me, there's a magicians code. That set me off. Magicians called, we were going to ruin magic. We had every lawsuit known to man put against us. We were banned from entering the Magic Castle for a year."
Does Someone Have To Go? (2013): "The original conceit was someone would be fired. We shelved it for a few years and decided to bring it back once the economic crisis had died down. I think if it aired four years ago, it would have been bigger than it ended up being."
Celebrity Boxing (2002): "Barry Williams and Danny Bonaduce. Tonya Harding and Paula Jones. That was as close as I came to big showman, circus, freak show stuff. We didn't do any more because it was extraordinarily hard to cast. It was a precursor for all these celebrity things now."
Guinness World Records (1998): "The stuff I used to like looking at in the Guinness Book of World Records as a kid was the gross stuff, like the world's longest fingernails. So I had it in my head that you needed to do something like that in each episode. The first episode we featured the largest tumor ever removed from a human being, over 300 pounds. That set the tone and made that show work."
Moment of Truth (2008): "It was a mix between a primetime game show and a Maury talk show."
Mr. Personality (2003): "Someone here knew Monica Lewinsky's brother and heard she was looking for something to do. I made a mistake in that I showed the audience what the guys really looked like. If you have a premise, you have to stick with that premise. The reveal would have been much greater at the end."
Robbie Knievel's Grand Canyon Death Jump (1999): "We had it all set, live, and then the night before, it snowed. They wanted to cancel it. I said, 'You can't.' We ended the show with him looking at the ramp and saying he wasn't going to do it. We got lots of letters: 'How dare you, this is bull, I can't believe it.' Then I decided to do it three weeks later, same stunt. This time he makes it. Same exact ratings. So we got two shows out of one jump. That was a good lesson: Don't cancel something. If it doesn't work, you can do it again."
Glutton Bowl (2002): "I still think this stands as the grossest show we ever did. Hot dogs are one thing, but they were eating eggs and mayonnaise. The cardinal rule of these contests is you can't throw up. We had a few throw up. I wish we had tried this as an annual event. It could have been my Puppy Bowl."
When Good Pets Go Bad (1999): "This was another way to do When Animals Attack. The first one beat Frasier on a Thursday night. Kelsey Grammer still mentions that every time I see him."