May 8, 2008 / 6:06 AM / in 9 years

Q&A: Hits keep coming for reality guru Darnell

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell is responsible for some of the most vilified reality series ever created -- "The Swan," "Married by America," "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" and "Temptation Island."

Yet members of Hollywood's creative community routinely describe him, without blinking, as a genius. This past year, it's been easy to see why: Darnell's track record for creating successful unscripted titles during a difficult period for freshman broadcast series has been nearly perfect. He's launched "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," "Don't Forget the Lyrics," "Kitchen Nightmares" and the season's highest-rated new show, "The Moment of Truth."

Darnell spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the ratings decline of "American Idol"; the one series he wishes didn't air; and his best idea that you've never seen.

Q: You're known for creating catchy titles. What do you look for?

Mike Darnell: Something simple that grabs you. In the best cases, the title itself is enough to drive you to view the show with no footage and no promo. When we did "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," I think people would have watched based on title alone. Length doesn't matter -- I used to get in arguments about that all the time. All that matters is that it says what it is.

Q: Your competitors have invested in celebrity reality series. Are you interested in that genre for Fox?

Darnell: Not much. The celebrity thing works when the content is grand and fits with the idea of celebrities. So ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" is perfect. I knew CBS' "Secret Talents of the Stars" was going to die because it's a bad concept and no one cares. Also, VH1 does it better than most, and they can go farther than most. So I think it's fruitless to keep going down that road.

Q: Is "American Idol" unavoidably on the other side of its ratings peak?

Darnell: Look around the landscape: You cannot discount things like DVRs and the Internet. Every big show on television is down 30 percent the past two years. The fact that "Idol" is down only 10 percent to 15 percent is a testament to its strength. "Idol" is actually more impervious to all this because, unlike a scripted show that keeps declining once it starts to decline, "Idol" is all about cast and controversy. So as soon as you get the right ingredients, it goes up again.

Q: You've had some controversial content over the years. Is there anything that you regret airing?

Darnell: "Regret" is a big word. I suppose I regret putting on "Who's Your Daddy?" (in which an adult adoptee tried to pick her biological father from a group of men). Because like "Kid Nation," it was enormously controversial but with the controversy outside of the program -- so it doesn't translate into ratings. The show was pretty good, but what was driving people was this outside controversy.

Q: How much responsibility, if any, do reality shows have to capture the accuracy of a situation?

Darnell: For most reality shows that don't profess to be pure (documentaries), it's their job to create situations to get the emotions that you need. In the course of that, you may have to shift time, maybe take some stuff a little out of context. It's similar to when movies based on a real story take dramatic license. Your responsibility is to depict the situation as accurately as possible while taking some dramatic license to make it entertaining.

Q: "Hell's Kitchen" contestants tend to be goofy line cooks rather than top chefs. Would the format work if you cast culinary pros?

Darnell: It would certainly work, but that would be a special. Because the theme of the show is that Gordon Ramsay is so talented he can take any chef and turn them into a master chef. But it might be fun to try the more "Top Chef"-type of people and do a season of "Hell's Kitchen" where he's screaming at some of the best chefs in the world.

Q: Did being a child actor give you any entertainment industry insight that you use today?

Darnell: Tenacity. And my unbelievable dependence on superstition. If things are going right, I have to wake up at the right time, use a certain phone to get the ratings -- and that comes from acting. If you're out of control of a situation -- like with ratings -- you become superstitious.

Q: You've often said you would never be a reality show contestant. If you had to be on one reality show, which would it be?

Darnell: "Don't Forget the Lyrics," because I sing. And maybe "Deal or No Deal."

Q: What's the worst reality show idea you've ever heard?

Darnell: I was pitched "'Big Brother' with puppets" -- so that half the "Big Brother" people are human and they're competing against puppets. Week after week, the audience either votes a human out or a puppet. There was also the "Left-Handed Awards." The would-be producers were excited about it -- "It's about left-handed people, and Jerry Seinfeld is left-handed, and he'll come on." That was just plain bad.

Q: Conversely, what's your favorite idea that never made it to air?

Darnell: Female prison beauty pageant. It was done in Croatia and is a big number waiting to happen. It's empowering to women, it's empowering to prisoners. The whole idea of going from prisoner to hot babe is interesting. I've been told many times that's never going to make air.

Q: What was your title?

Darnell: Literally that: "Female Prisoner Beauty Pageant."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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