NEW YORK -- Fox reality chief Mike Darnell said Friday that he's exiting the network after an 18-year stay, ending a reign that – depending on one's point of view – has made TV more exciting or more squalid. And great for Fox.
In a puckishly worded announcement, the 50-year-old Darnell said that the end of his current contract in June presented him with 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," added the exec who was once called "the world's scariest programmer." But 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, who was named the network's president of alternative entertainment in 2007, joined Fox in 1994 as director of specials.
During nearly two decades, he oversaw such programs as "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Joe Millionaire," "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," "Temptation Island" and "The Simple Life."
While many of his shows won Fox high ratings and loads of attention, his irrepressible (and some said shameless) style pushed Fox and reality TV to new extremes, as with "When Animals Attack," "World's Scariest Police Shootouts" and "The Moment of Truth," whose players were strapped to a polygraph and asked embarrassing questions.
His most recent creation premiered Thursday night. "Does Someone Have to Go?" takes its cameras into small businesses whose employees are obliged to rat out underperforming colleagues, then choose one co-worker to recommend for firing.
"This is the thing they promise to do in retreats, but nobody really does it," Darnell told The Associated Press in a recent interview hyping the new show.
Darnell's successes at Fox were many, but perhaps his low point was "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" This 2000 special attracted nearly 23 million viewers to watch eligible bachelor Rick Rockwell choose a bride from among a bevy of attractive prospects and marry her on the spot.
But then questions were raised about Rockwell's financial status as well as his background, including allegations that he had struck an ex-girlfriend.
Beset by bad publicity, Fox executives declared they were swearing off exploitative reality shows.
But a week later, Fox aired a special featuring daredevil Robbie Knievel in a live motorcycle jump over a moving train. He emerged unhurt. Darnell, similarly unscathed, continued his reign.
On Friday, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox parent News Corp., called Darnell "smart and fearless," "a pioneering force in shaping the reality programming genre that exists today."
"We wish he would've stayed forever," said Peter Rice, chairman of Fox Networks Group.
Fox had no comment on a possible successor.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier