Mike Darnell Steps Down as Fox Reality Capo

American Idol boss passes on contract renewal

Nearly 20 years into a stint that saw him steer an unscripted slate that included the likes of When Animals Attack! and American Idol, Fox president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell is leaving the network.

Sources said that while Fox looked to retain Darnell’s services, the 51-year-old programmer has decided to part ways with the broadcaster after his contract expires on June 30. In a statement released Friday night, Darnell said that he simply wants to “try something new.”

“I’ve been in ‘reality’ since before it was even called that, and it has truly been an amazing ride,” Darnell said. “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.”

Fox is expected to begin searching for Darnell’s replacement after the Memorial Day break.

Over the course of his colorful career, Darnell oversaw a number of monster hits, including the unimpeachable Idol franchise. And regardless of what the intelligentsia may have thought about lowest-common-denominator fare like Temptation Island and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, these curiosities scared up ratings that the current broadcast environment cannot deliver. The first season of Temptation Island drew a whopping 9.0 in the 18-49 demo, while MBFOF averaged a 7.9 over the course of its six-episode run.

Darnell’s departure comes on the heels of a particularly tough run for American Idol, which in Season 12 averaged 13.2 million viewers and a 3.8 in the all-important 18-49 demo. (While that was a steep decline from Idol’s heyday, the show still ranks among broadcast’s top five shows.)

Idol remains a cash cow for Fox, but if the show is to continue generating in excess of $800 million in annual ad sales revenue, it must make some bold staffing moves. Reports have Jennifer Hudson joining the judges’ panel in 2014; Idol could do worse than hire a few of her fellow alums. (Kelly Clarkson is perhaps the most successful Idol veteran, and it’s not like Katharine McPhee has any conflicting TV commitments.)

News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch bade farewell to Darnell, lauding the outgoing exec for taking risks and proving himself “a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today." Murdoch went on to characterize Darnell as “a smart and fearless executive who will be missed.”

Fox scheduler emeritus Preston Beckman also gave Darnell a shout-out

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