In Reality, Nobody Stands Taller Than Mike Darnell

The first thing one cannot help not notice when you meet Mike Darnell is that he’s, how shall we say, vertically challenged.  I’m hardly an imposing figure myself, but I have actually have had to look down when I’ve been huddled in a production truck with Mike, and he wasn’t sitting at the time.

The second thing you quickly realize, and the impression that has stuck with me and countless others for decades, is that literally nobody has understood the whos, whats and whys of unscripted television anywhere on the planet better than Mike Darnell.

I had first heard of Mike when he was toiling as a news promotion producer at FOX-owned KTTV.  Some mutual friends had noted that he was unapologetically offbeat, impassioned and cranked out some of the most compelling and lurid content the station had ever seen, at a time when corporate honchos were in the process of spending more time in LA and noticing the kind of approach they had fostered in New York and in their British tabloids.  Even though he was 100 per cent American, Mike became an honorary Aussie, quickly identified as someone the Murdochs adored and someone it would be in our best interest to be on his good side.

I didn’t need any such warnings.  Mike was–and I dare say is–one of the most astute students of what drives human behavior I’ve ever met.  He has an uncanny knack for identifying what motivates people, both positively and negatively, and has played off those qualities brilliantly, first at FOX, and for the last decade as the czar of Warner Brothers’ prolific reality TV unit.

But on Thursday, it was announced that Darnell and WBTG are parting ways, the latest top-flight talent who has gotten a taste of a company run by Yosemite Zas who has, if one is to believe the angles taken in the press, chose to move on or, far more likely in Mike’s case, looked at how his unit and his talent was being revalued, with the same kind of take it or leave it approach other business units have been dealt with in the David Zaslav era, and effetively said “leave it”.

Look at the partial list of accomplishments that VARIETY’s Michael Schneider rattled off that Darnell has directly been responsible or shepherded in his Warner Brothers tenure alone:

…(D)oubling the studio’s unscripted output and overseeing hundreds of series on broadcast, cable, streamers and first-run syndication. His oversight included NBC’s “The Voice,” ABC’s “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise.” He also launched the studio’s “The Jennifer Hudson Show” talker in syndication.  

Darnell expanded Warner Bros. TV Group in digital with Ellentube and games (with the app Heads Up!), and expanded the studio into high-end documentaries with a slate that includes projects at Netflix, Apple TV+, Paramount+, HBO Sports and Max.

And this was after his even more impactful run at FOX, as Schneider also chronicled:

(H)is reputation was cemented as the reality kingpin behind TV phenomenon “American Idol,” as well as juicy TV favorites like “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” and “Temptation Island,” as well as in-your-face fare including “Joe Millionaire,” “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction,” “The Swan,” “When Animals Attack” and “Man vs. Beast.” (At Fox he also helped shepherd animated hits “Family Guy” and “Futurama,” the latter of which has just been revived at Hulu.)

His mantra at FOX was simple and consistent:  Be noisier than any competitor, and be sure to beat them by at least one day to air.  This was especially true after ABC struck gold with WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, catching the industry by surprise 24 summers ago.  Mike was driven to never let anyone else but FOX have that distinction.  IDOL was his signature accomplishment, and although the format pre-existed as POP IDOL in the UK and was a favorite of first daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, Mike’s casting choices and tweaks to accommodate multiple time zones made the show an even more massive success in the US that it had been overseas.

At Warner’s, he embraced and optimized the talents of equally bold and ambitious talents like Mark Burnett and Ellen DeGeneres.  It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a presentation from any of those outsized personalities with Darnell quietly observing and taking notes, and then when needed pouncing on any objection or concern with a ferocity and tenacity that ultimately made him see twice as tall, and exponentially smarter, than anyone else in the room.

It is arguable that Zaslav’s rise to power through the content he shepherded at Discovery’s networks could not have been happened were it not for the outsized success, let alone economic efficiencies, that Darnell’s FOX success portended.  And for as much as Zaslav would like to believe that 90 DAY FIANCE and NAKED AND AFRAID are franchises as valuable as HARRY POTTER or BATMAN, let it be known that none of them have ever reached the kind of audience levels or zeitgeist status that even Mike’s more mediocre projects achieved .

That’s why I’m just a little dubious about what was behind the seeming love fest that WBTG chairman/CEO Channing Dungey offered up in her remarks to Schneider:

When Mike joined Warner Bros. in 2013, he was already an industry legend — one of the most influential figures in the history of unscripted programming… I had hoped we would continue to work together, but I understand Mike’s decision to leave,” she added. “If there’s such a thing as a genius in this business, Mike definitely qualifies. I am incredibly grateful for his inspired leadership, both in the industry and within the company, and for his warm friendship and unforgettable style. We’re losing a legend and an icon, one of the most creative executives in the industry, and he will be well and truly missed.”

Added Darnell:

…Channing approached me a couple of months ago, and although I was given the opportunity to stay… it would have meant more changes for both my personal deal and to the general structure of the division,”… “Call it fate, or just good timing, during my discussions with Channing, a couple of new ventures have come my way… Even so, deciding to leave was difficult. (Those who know me know I am not a fan of change.) I want to thank my amazing studio team. I am, of course, going to miss everybody…not the least of which is Channing… I couldn’t ask for a more supportive boss, first class all the way.

That’s why I’m of the belief that if nothing else Zaslav respects unscripted genius about as much as he respects classic movies and scripted talent, and that both Darnell and Dungey’s hands were forced into this undesired split.

So I’m really, really rooting for someone, anyone, who can give Darnell the bandwidth and, yes, the money he deserves to have an even more impactful third act somewhere, anywhere that can perhaps delay the delivery of Zaslav’s next yacht, or at the very least the size of his bonus.

And perhaps it may be time for Darnell himself to run a company outright.  After all, look at the way he explained to Schneider how at least he explained his departure:

“Letting yourself go is always difficult…I took a deep breath, called myself on Zoom and told myself it was time to leave,” Darnell said in a statement, in his usual unique style. “I took it surprisingly well,” he quipped.

I’m hoping he wakes up sometime soon and decides to make another Zoom call to himself and, as my best friend urges me to do, hire himself.  Take a few really outrageous and emotionally charged ideas and find some outlet on some platform to put them on.  Lord knows at this point the entertainment industry needs that kind of output more than ever.  And boy, do I have a couple of my own, as well as a few from some trusted allies I know , that I’d crave getting the chance to at least pitch him, or perhaps even try to help him fine-tune so that his next buyer doesn’t leave a penny of their budget on the table.

Stand tall and be proud, Mike.  You definitely tower over Yosemite Zas.  Not to mention the creative capacities of a whole lotta other folks.  I’m personally hoping when you stand atop the wads of money you will earn in your next venture you’ll be as monolithic as your track record to date is.

Needless to say, I’d love to be a small part of it.

Until next time…

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