EXCLUSIVE: The reality TV landscape will never be the same. After 18 years at Fox, the dean of unscripted TV executives, Fox’s President of Alternative Programming Mike Darnell, is stepping down. He will stay on through the end of June, when his current contract is up, and help with the transition. Darnell was offered a new long-term deal at the network but, after long deliberation, decided it was time to move on. Darnell faced similar agonizing soul-searching several years ago when he was offered rich producing deals elsewhere but ultimately opted to stay at Fox, where he’s had free rein on the unscripted side. This time around, he decided to leave the network, which he helped build first with noise-making reality specials like World’s Scariest Police Chases and When Animals Attack! and then with such tentpole series as American Idol and Family Guy. The colorful, unconventional, cowboy hat-wearing Darnell never shied away from controversy, relishing in the blockbuster attention projects like the Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? special and hit series Joe Millionaire brought on. In a testament to Darnell’s importance to Fox and parent News Corp, company chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch weighed in on his departure. “Mike took risks at a critical time and was a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today,” Murdoch said. “He’s a smart and fearless executive who will be missed.”
Darnell is expected to take some time off before making his next move, which I hear likely will be in the producing/entrepreneurial arena. “I’m extremely grateful that Fox has offered me a new long-term contract (and anyone who knows me won’t believe I’m saying this), but I’ve decided it’s time for a change,” Darnell said. “With my current deal ending in June, and having been here for 18 years (kind of a record in Hollywood), I had to make a decision: either stay (and basically admit to myself I was going to retire at Fox … not a terrible choice) or leave and try something new. I’ve been in ‘Reality’ since before it was even called that, and it has truly been an amazing ride. However, the world has changed drastically over the last few years, and now with hundreds of channels and limitless ways to watch television, I’ve decided this was the perfect time to take advantage of the rapidly changing marketplace. To say I am going to miss everyone here and that the people at Fox are like a family to me would be the understatement of the decade. I have so many people to thank (and I will call all of you!), but first and foremost, I want to thank Kevin Reilly, Peter Rice, Chase Carey and Rupert Murdoch for all their amazing support over these many years,” the exec said in a statement Friday.
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Fox is expected to begin the search for Darnell’s successor, who will navigate veteran American Idol and The X Factor through their upcoming overhauls, soon as Idol is looking to rebound from all-time low ratings. “Mike has been a trailblazer for the entire industry and has made innumerable contributions to the growth and success of the network over the past two decades,” said Rice, Chairman of Fox Networks Group. “His passion for – and dedication to – television knows no bounds. He is like a member of the family, and Fox won’t be the same without him. While we wish he would’ve stayed forever, we regretfully accept his decision.”