Reality TV Kingpin Mike Darnell Wants One More Hit

BURBANK, Calif. — If he really wanted to, Mike Darnell could probably cast himself in one of the many shows he oversees as the head of unscripted programming at Warner Bros.

He keeps a baby grand piano, complete with a microphone and two speakers, in his office on the studio lot. When a reporter visited him recently, Mr. Darnell, who is five feet tall and weighs about 100 pounds, tossed himself onto the piano bench and said, in his raspy voice, “I’ll play a song for you,” before bursting into laughter.

He has the look of a 1970s rocker, with his mass of thick curls and a uniform consisting of flowing scarves, ripped jeans, chains and high-heeled cowboy boots. He leafed through a Billy Joel songbook and seemed to fall into a reverie as he belted out a polished version of “New York State of Mind.” For a couple of years, he played and sang at a piano bar.

And then he became one of the longest-running and most successful executives in reality TV.

In his role at Warner Bros., Mr. Darnell, 55, oversees more than 30 series that appear on cable, broadcast networks or in syndication. His biggest recent winners are two NBC programs: “Little Big Shots,” in which the comedian Steve Harvey engages in repartee with precocious children; and “Ellen’s Game of Games,” which features Ellen DeGeneres as a cheerfully sadistic host who dispatches losing contestants to various indignities, like dropping them through trap doors or sending them flying into vats of mashed potatoes.

The television business, however, is considerably less fun than it used to be, something that Mr. Darnell has learned all too well. As network executives prepare to showcase their latest lineups this week during the annual presentations known as the upfronts, they are grappling with steady declines in ratings and advertising dollars.

That’s where Mr. Darnell comes in. Because it is relatively cheap and easy to produce, his specialty — reality programming — has never been more in demand.

Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell on a Fox show overseen by Mr. Darnell, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?”CreditCarin Bear/Fox

“It’s keeping the lights on,” he said in his office. “These fill so many hours for the networks. Personally, we’re going to have over 200 hours of prime time network reality show hours this year — 250 hours! Imagine if all those went away.”

In the all-American tradition of raffish impresarios like P. T. Barnum and Chuck Barris, Mr. Darnell aims for popular success, critics be damned. This is the man, after all, who gave the world “When Good Pets Go Bad,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé,” and “World’s Worst Drivers Caught on Tape.” The late NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer once referred to Mr. Darnell as a purveyor of “snuff” television.

He started as a child actor — he appeared on “Kojak” and “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 1970s — and had his first successes as an executive at Fox in the 1990s, overseeing shows like “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” and “When Animals Attack.” He hit upon something more substantial in 2002, when he helped adapt a British singing competition program, “Pop Idol,” into one of the biggest reality TV hits of all time, “American Idol.”

“They brought ‘Idol’ back too quick,” he said. “You need time to get people nostalgic. And it’s very, very difficult to make money on that show, with that level of casting.”

He figured he would become an independent producer after he left Fox. But Peter Roth, the president of the Warner Bros. television group and Mr. Darnell’s former boss at Fox, asked him to take charge of the studio’s unscripted programming division, home to shows like “Ellen,” “TMZ,” “Basketball Wives” and “The Bachelor” and its various spinoffs.

The concept behind “The World’s Best” is nothing new, having much in common with the current NBC show “America’s Got Talent” and stalwarts of earlier vintage like “Star Search,” “The Gong Show” and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” “The World’s Best” will present performers like singers, dancers, magicians, comics, stunt artists and circus performers. The twist? In addition to the conventional three-judge format, 50 international judges will help determine a winner.

“Most people in the reality business walk around with one idea,” Mr. Fleiss said. “Or they’re angry that nobody bought their one idea, or they think someone stole their one idea, because another show about weight loss went on another network. You have to throw a ton of stuff against the wall.

“Mike’s not a guy with one idea,” he continued. “He has a million. And they come fast and furious.”