Fox Reality Chief Darnell Exits After ‘Idol’ Rating Slide

News Corp.’s Fox broadcast unit said its reality-TV chief Mike Darnell has decided to step down after 18 years at the network as audience ratings decline for “American Idol,” its most-watched program.

Darnell said in a statement yesterday he will depart in June when his current deal expires even though the network offered him a new long-term contract. Fox, based in Los Angeles, didn’t name a replacement.

Fox is losing a key executive as the network seeks to revive “Idol,” which had been TV’s most popular show until last year. The show averaged 13.2 million viewers this season, a decline of 23 percent from a year ago, according to Nielsen data. Darnell joined Fox in 1994 and developed specials that came to define the network, including “When Animals Attack!” and “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” before reality shows became a mainstay.

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

Darnell said in a phone interview yesterday that he hasn’t decided whether to start his own production company.

“There’s a lot on the table,” he said. “I don’t like change very much, but I really thought about this, I talked with my wife and came to this decision. It’s a big leap for me.”

Personal Decision

Darnell is leaving as Fox looks to rework “Idol” for a third time since Simon Cowell, one of the original judges, departed in 2010 to start “The X Factor.” Darnell said his resignation isn’t connected to the show’s ratings.

“This is a personal decision,” he said. “I like ‘Idol.’ It’s a brand and a phenomenon. There will be good seasons and bad seasons, but it will prevail because audiences want it to work.”

In addition to “Idol,” Darnell helped bring reality and competition series including “The X Factor,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” among many others, to the network. He also had a role in developing animated shows including “Family Guy” and “Futurama.”

“Mike took risks at a critical time and was a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today,” Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive officer of News Corp., said in the statement. “He’s a smart and fearless executive who will be missed.”

Critics Groan

Darnell delighted in television that made critics, censors and parents groups groan, including “The Swan,” “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?,” “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” “Man vs. Beast,” “Busted on the Job,” and “World’s Scariest Police Chases.”

He oversaw shows including “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?,” “Joe Millionaire,” “The Simple Life,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” “Trading Spouses” and “Temptation Island.”

“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 Peter Rice, chairman of Fox Networks Group. “While we wish he would’ve stayed forever, we regretfully accept his decision.”

News Corp., based in New York, gained 0.7 percent to $33.09 at the close in New York yesterday. The stock has climbed 30 percent this year, compared with a 16 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Darnell has one more month at the network and said he doesn’t plan to sit back in that time.

“There’s still a couple things on the shelf,” he said. “Maybe they’ll let me dust one of those off.”