Legendary producer and 2017 Realscreen Hall of Fame inductee Mike Darnell offered up valuable life lessons that have guided his success in unscripted during a keynote conversation with veteran WME agent Mark Itkin Wednesday (June 7) at Realscreen West.
Darnell is currently the president of unscripted and alternative television at Warner Bros., where he runs three companies: Warner Horizon Alternative Television, Telepictures Productions and Shed Media, and currently oversees more than 35 series in broadcast, cable and syndication.
Prior to joining Warner Bros., Darnell spent 19 years at Fox Broadcasting Company as president of alternative programming where he was responsible for launching hundreds of series and specials including MasterChef, So You Think You Can Dance?, The Simple Life and American Idol.
Darnell shared his memories associated with many of those series, several laughs and what he learned during his climb to the top. Here are his take-aways:
Luck comes to everyone, you just have to be ready for it
In the early days of his career, while working at KTTV news station, Darnell said he knew nothing about news, but took the job to work in television. Indeed, to fulfill that goal, he took every job in that newsroom – writer, PA, messenger –determined to get noticed. His big move came when he landed an interview with Burt Ward, the actor who played Robin in the 1966 show Batman, and created the film Life After Reruns.
“I carried that tape around for three months and I showed it to everybody…I thought someone would notice me,” he said.
He had to wait until fate intervened: The 1989 film Batman stirred up renewed appetite for the subject and everyone was looking for a story about Batman. At the news station, they decided to run Darnell’s piece on Ward.
At this time he was technically the video librarian but would also help out producers on their stories. Darnell recalled having a fight with the assistant news director after he told him he would never be a producer, and Darnell told him off. As he was walking down the steps, thinking he was fired, his news director told him television behemoth Barry Diller saw his piece and, suddenly, Darnell was a producer.
“It’s really about luck. Luck comes to everyone, you just have to be ready for it,” he said.
Don’t work hard and then not know what you want to do
While working on a show that was a precursor to TMZ, Darnell said he would often go to events that Barry Diller often attended and stand with a boom mic behind a plant, with a camera man upfront would act as though he was only taking B-roll.
“My job was to get personal conversations from celebs and it was called Overheard. I never actually got many…Mostly I used it to impress Barry [Diller].
After devising a stunt that took months to bring together, Diller finally took notice. He called up Darnell and asked him what he would like to do at the network — a question an unprepared Darnell found could not answer.
The lesson? “Don’t work that hard and not know what you want to do,” he said.
Sometimes bleeping makes a show better
While in England working on The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best, with UK billionaire Richard Branson, Darnell went to a taping of Hell’s Kitchen and could immediately see the star potential in then relatively undiscovered celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. He bought the show for Fox and tweaked it by replacing celebrities in the kitchen with regular folk.
The fact that Ramsay famously uses colorful language became a point of conflict between Darnell and the network. The execs wanted Darnell to replace Ramsay’s swear words with ‘friggin’, but Darnell refused, recognizing the foul language was a key part of the chef’s persona. Ratings for the show proved Darnell was right.
“I learned a lesson which was you can’t run away from what you are doing,” he said.
He also discovered on another valuable career gem. When Hell’s Kitchen aired, Darnell bleeped not only the chef’s swear words, but also threw in a few extra bleeps for good measure.
“Then I learned another lesson which is sometimes you can bleep and make it even better,” he said.
Make sure any controversy about a show, is in the show
Darnell’s show, Who’s My Daddy?, which featured a woman who had been adopted as a child going into a house of bachelor-type men, one of whom was her father, immediately generated controversy. But that controversy didn’t draw eyeballs to the screen – an outcome that surprised the producer at the time.
“The controversy that surrounded it wasn’t about the show itself, it was about people talking about the show and having a problem with a concept of the show. That doesn’t draw an audience,” he said, adding, “If you are going to draw an audience through controversy it must be inside the television. It must be something that is happening inside the show.”