In May 2013, reality chief Mike Darnell left Fox after 18 years to join his former Fox boss Peter Roth at Warner Bros. As the studio’s president of unscripted and alternative television, he put the network reality production operation of Warner Horizon, cable-focused production company Shed and first-run syndication house Telepictures under the same roof.
Since Darnell joined the company, its portfolio has grown from three broadcast reality series — The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and The Voice — to 12, the most for a producer or a studio at the moment. That includes Little Big Shots on NBC, hosted by Steve Harvey and produced by Ellen DeDeneres, and its recently picked up spinoff Forever Young as well as the upcoming Ellen’s Game Of Games on NBC and Love Connection on Fox. Warners, which regularly has the top reality series in Live+Same Day weekly rankings with The Voice, The Bachelor and Little Big Shots, has expanded The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise with two new series each on ABC and Freeform under Darnell. It also recently became the first outside studio to land a series order at Fox News Channel for Harvey Levin’s OBJECTified. In the challenging syndication market, Telepictures, which has the hugely successful The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the growing TMZ franchise, launched The Real and Crime Watch Daily With Chris Hansen.
In an interview with Deadline, Darnell, who is doing a sit-down with Love Connection host Andy Cohen at the TV Academy tomorrow, talks about returning to Fox as a producer, potential new Bachelor offshoots and other new projects in the pipeline. Additionally, the veteran executive, known for his eccentric personal style, addresses how long The Voice can go, the state of the network and cable reality business and the newcomers in the space, Netflix and Amazon, as well as the rumored reboot of American Idol, which he originally launched at Fox, at NBC or Fox.
DEADLINE: You ended your Fox run more than 3 1/2 years ago. Do you have any regrets about leaving the network world and going to work for a studio?
DARNELL: No. It’s been terrific. I left for a couple of reasons. One is I could see Idol starting to come down, and that year, maybe our third year of decreasing numbers, you can well imagine that when a network has something that’s been that big for that long both in taking it from fourth place to first place every year in the ratings and a huge profit center, that when it starts to go down, they panic. And I saw my life for the next three years as “Fix it, fix it, fix it,” and it wasn’t broken, it was just old and it was inevitably coming down.
And so that, coupled with my wanting to try to expand my fingers a little bit. Fox was great but if I had an idea and they didn’t like it, I was done. Now if I have an idea, there’s four or five networks, there’s multitude of cable networks, there’s Netflix, there’s Amazon — in fact that’s increased since I got here — and so far, knock wood, it’s been going terrifically well.
Not to mention the other lure was, of course, Peter Roth who was an amazing boss at Fox and I knew he’d be incredibly supportive, and basically I work best when someone pats me on the shoulder and says, “I know you can make the best TV, go do it. You have my blessing,” and that makes me want to work 15 times harder than someone constantly looking over my shoulder.
DEADLINE: You recently landed your first series at Fox with Love Connection. How has it been returning to the network?
DARNELL: What’s interesting is the first couple times I went over there was a little weird for me, to be honest, because there was somebody else in my office, and actually that office used to be very colorful and entertaining — I always had my piano and my shag carpet — and since I left, it’s a little bland. No one’s done anything to it, there’s no personality in it, so that bugs me a little bit. I like (new Fox Alternative president) Rob (Wade), I did X Factor with him, he’s a really nice guy, but he’s the third person in the three years that I’ve left, so it’s been a lot of changes over there.
I’m getting used to that feeling of maybe a slight awkwardness when I used to walk in, and now I’m just excited, it’s another place to sell. I’ve got Love Connection and then something else coming on the network actually. We are shooting Love Connection right now, and it looks great. It’s actually been really fun working with Fox again.
DEADLINE: What did you think about the most recent season of The Bachelor, which drew a lot of attention?
DARNELL: It was incredibly buzzy, it’s great, and here’s what I think about that show. There are a lot of shows that have been on since the boom, Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen. Nothing has remained as, not just number-wise, but zeitgeist-y as that show, it’s still on the cover of Us, the cover of People, still getting the kind of social media buzz. When you think about it, it’s going into its 22nd season, just Bachelor, and not to mention the fact that it’s spawned Bachelorette, Bachelor In Paradise.
Survivor still does well, but it’s not buzzy. No one’s talking about it in the zeitgeist. This show is really well done. But more than that, my daughter turned 18, and all of a sudden around 16 or 17 years old her friends started talking about Bachelor and that never happens with old reality shows. And I started to realize it becomes a rite of passage as their mothers have been watching it and then the kids grow to a dating age, and they start watching it with their moms. It’s getting new fans and new generations which doesn’t happen for older reality shows.
DEADLINE: Last year you tried hard to get some Emmy love for The Bachelor, which is yet to receive awards recognition. Have you given up on that?
DARNELL: I haven’t given up. It certainly deserves some Emmy nominations, but it is tough. I think certain shows get the Emmy voter’s attention and certain shows don’t. It’s quite difficult to change that over.
DEADLINE: What is your take on The Bachelorette getting its first diverse star?
DARNELL: Because I’m only here for a little over three years and that’s a subject that really goes way back, I would prefer to leave to (The Bachelor creator) Mike (Fleiss) and the executive producers of the show.
DEADLINE: Since you joined WBTV, there has been Bachelor In Paradise and After Paradise on ABC, two new series on Freeform. Are you done expanding The Bachelor franchise?
DARNELL: There may be another spinoff of The Bachelor.
DEADLINE: The other big show that you inherited was The Voice. How long do you see it going now that there’s no American Idol, or maybe there will be, we’ll touch on that a little bit later.
DARNELL: Quite long. The world has changed so the numbers it’s doing are really great for this time, and NBC, obviously it’s a big show for them, but it also is a great show for promoting things out of and launching things out of. I would say, at least another four or five years.
DEADLINE: Do you think the show will go down to one cycle a year at one point?
DARNELL: It might. When I did Idol, the goal was to only do it once a year, and I think everybody in hindsight believed that by putting X Factor on in the second part of the year it was the equivalent of putting Idol on twice, and it didn’t help. I think it might have quickened the demise of Idol. So I think The Voice is working twice a year but I could see the logic in trying to keep it to once a year.
DEADLINE: How would you feel if NBC buys American Idol and decides to do something similar with The Voice and Idol alternating?
DARNELL: I’ve heard the rumors. I don’t know anything specific more than you do. Listen, I have nothing but love for the franchise. It meant so much to me and to TV, and I’ve said this often but it’s true, when I was growing up, my dream was that I would be associated with something as big as like a M.A.S.H. or an All In The Family or Mary Tyler Moore, and Idol was that. It was the biggest show on TV for all those years, so I wish it well. But personally I think it’s too soon. I think you need to let the brand rest.
DEADLINE: How would you reinvent it if you have to?
DARNELL: Oh, gosh. I don’t even know where I’d begin and I think that’s one of the problems. You can’t change it too much or it is no longer American Idol. And yet if you don’t change it somewhat, you’re sort of stuck where it was and that’s why I feel like it needs a few years to rest where people will love to see the old show again. I think that changing the format too much overtly, for people who aren’t interested, it’s not going to help them to be interested, and maybe the old fans will get pissed.
DEADLINE: Back to The Voice. The Bachelor has so many spinoffs, Little Big Shots is getting one. Are we closer to a Voice spinoff, maybe The Voice Kids which seems very natural?
DARNELL: NBC has to be on board for that conversation. So far they have not really brought it up to me. Personally, I’m a fan of trying it because The Voice Kids is working virtually everywhere in the world it’s in.
DEADLINE: Four of your new network shows came out of Ellen DeGeneres and her talk show. How important was it for you to mine properties that were within the company, and why did Ellen become a primary generator of reality ideas?
DARNELL: Very important. When I got here, you obviously want to exploit what you already have, and no one had taken Ellen’s ideas from the show and her as a producer and really done anything with it, and quite honestly that was one of the things she said to me which was, “I feel like my brand isn’t being exploited,” and I’m like, “Win Win. You have an amazing brand. Let’s see what we can do.” I actually came, when I started the job, I had the idea. I’d seen her do these interviews with little kids with amazing skills, and they would go viral immediately. But what was going viral was the interview, not so much their talent. And I thought, there’s a show in that, and I approached her with it maybe a month into the job, and she loved the idea.
Forever Young hit us as a natural extension. Honestly my daughter said to me, “Hey, Dad. Old people are funny, too,” and I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right.” And so I figured it would work the same way, the difference being Steve could be a little more bawdy with them because it’s not little kids.
And then something like Game Of Games, they had been doing these games on Ellen forever, it’s one of the signatures of the show, and as we’re getting into bringing her stuff to network or cable, her executive producers said, why don’t we do a show which is a conglomeration of these games. I had been hoping for three years she would say yes to hosting something, and they convinced her to host this. And so I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The show was already a great idea, with her hosting, a slam dunk.
And then First Date, which she’s executive producer on, that was just the case of we had an international format that we owned, we sold the concept to NBC and her attachment to it made a difference in the sale.
DEADLINE: Ellen’s Game Of Games is a game show, and so is Love Connection. It’s been a trend, with ABC reviving a slew of classic game shows, NBC launching The Wall, CBS doing Candy Crush. Are game shows the hottest format right one?
DARNELL: I think the networks just want something now. You need unscripted that is safe, comfortable, and games have always been a form that works, sort of cycles in and out. I think right now, while not every one is working, they’re getting good numbers. I think ultimately it becomes just another route that’s doing OK, kind of like shiny floors. So I don’t know if it’s the hot genre, I think it’s a genre that’s working.
DEADLINE: Is there some other new genre that’s bubbling up or are we going to be stuck with game shows for a little bit?
DARNELL: No, I think there’s a willingness to try stuff. I’m in the business of selling so you can’t always sell the thing you absolutely love, but give them stuff that feels fresh and that feels energetic. And for me, I’ve had a lot of luck in comedy. When you look at Little Big Shots, it’s a comedy show. When you look at Game Of Games, it’s comedy. When you look at Love Connection, it’s a game but really it’s a romantic comedy.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the cable reality business.
DARNELL: Shed is our main cable company, we’re going to have 50 different hours of cable television. And it’s a good business. It’s a tougher business because the networks want to own a piece, they want to own the whole thing. So we’ve been pretty lucky because we have our international division, and have some IP that we own. And then because we’re Warner Bros, we’re able to push a little bit, and so we own a good percentage of the cable shows that we air. I want to still be in it, expand it out, but what (broadcast) network series do for you that cable doesn’t is, if you get a show working on network, you can sell the format internationally and that’s where honestly the money’s at. Little Big Shots is currently in 21 countries and is doing quite well in the UK, working in Colombia.
DEADLINE: How are you adjusting to a new player in the unscripted series field like Netflix? What is it like selling to them?
DARNELL: My job is to sell so we’re happy to sell to them, but the business is so new that the negotiations are different. With Netflix, they obviously are going to air the show in whatever countries they’re in. Also, if something’s working, they have a new thing where they’re going to do different iterations. In other words, a German version, a Spanish version, according to which countries they want to do, so you not only have your American version being done but you have the possibility, and I think the probability, of them ordering new versions for different countries.
So there’s a whole new business design, and we’re working our way through it. In fact I have something going right now which is through Shed, which will be our first sale to Netflix.
DEADLINE: The syndication business also has faced many challenges, with talk shows struggling to launch — though Ellen is doing incredibly well and the TMZ franchise keeps expanding. What is your take on how that business will survive?
DARNELL: Well, so far since I got here we’ve launched Crime Watch With Chris Hansen on Tribune, and The Real on Fox, and those are both doing well. They’re not through the roof but they’re doing well and they’re profitable and that is a rarity. Since I got here, Meredith, Queen Latifah, Harry, I’m missing a number of them, have all been failures.
So it’s a very tough business. Part of the toughness is the numbers have come down so much that it’s very difficult to do these shows without losing money from year one. We’ve figured it out, but I’ve had to squeeze really hard to make it happen. So it’s almost like you need a new paradigm financially to make these things work. Some of that is, can you do them in block form, like Dr. Phil is done over the block of four months instead of doing it day and date which is expensive.
DEADLINE: Looking forward, where do you think the reality genre is headed? Interactivity was something networks have been looking into — ABC with Rising Star, NBC with Million Dollar Quiz and Fox with the upcoming You The Jury. Can interactive reality be successful?
DARNELL: The answer is, the show has to be great, the interactive stuff in my opinion comes after. If you have a great show, you’ll be big on social media. If you have a great show, a game everybody loves, maybe you can sell a game app. But anybody that starts a pitch to me with the interactive part being the biggest part, I reject it because over and over again people are watching television because they like to be entertained.
Think about it this way. You wouldn’t be asking me the same thing on a scripted show, right? And what makes scripted shows work is the same thing that makes unscripted shows work. Relatability, making you feel sad or happy, some kind of emotion. There’s no difference. And so this interactivity thing is sort of misplaced in my opinion. The same thing that makes Walking Dead socially active, because people love it and they love to talk about it, it’s the same thing that makes Little Big Shots socially active or on YouTube.
The one thing I will say is this. Little Big Shots did sort of spark a notion with me, which is, I got interested in the concept because the Ellen piece was doing so much viral work on YouTube. Spike’s Lip Sync Battle is another example. Those lip sync things were going viral from Jimmy’s Tonight Show. So if you can find something that’s already viral and then figure out a way to bring it backwards to regular TV, you can have a hit on your hands.
DEADLINE: Where do you see network reality television in 10 years? Will The Bachelor, Dancing With The Stars and Survivor still be around, do you think there will be big new formats?
DARNELL: Yes, I think that for survival the networks — assuming the networks are still around in a decade — they’ll definitely be franchises that will probably still be around, and new big franchises because here’s the thing. A, they’re one of the few things that still pull in live audiences and big live plus same-day audiences, and the networks like that as they really are still in the live same-day business. Also, when you look at the amount of hours that these reality shows are on network television, 95 hours of The Voice, 50 hours of Bachelor, probably 40 hours of Survivor, on and on and on. If the networks didn’t have those shows, they’d be out of business. Period. That’s the truth. No one really talks about it but if you looked at it and removed those hours, they would have to fill them with very expensive scripted shows, probably not doing as good of numbers, almost for sure.
DEADLINE: How about yourself? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
DARNELL: Not retired. I don’t know, but right now I love it here, and definitely in television. I think I’m one of those guys who like to work until he can’t any more. So I’m thrilled, honestly, and I’m not just saying it, it’s been a great experience and the fact that we built the place up and being in a new game has really been exciting for me, and the change could not have come better both from a perspective of coming here and also the timing on leaving Fox.