Inventing A Fox Formula ``when Good Pets Go Bad.'' ``when Stunts Go Bad.'' ``when Disaster Strikes.'' Critics Cringe, But Programmers Love These Profitable Specials. Where Do The Ideas Come From? Meet Mike Darnell.

Posted: December 29, 1998

LOS ANGELES — To understand what Mike Darnell has wrought upon television's landscape, consider the titles of his shows.

When Good Pets Go Bad. Busted on the Job. World's Scariest Police Chases. World's Deadliest Swarms.

In a prime-time minefield littered with the bodies of blink-and-they're-canceled comedies, ponderous newsmagazines, a scant handful of dependable old soldiers, and an even more meager assortment of new hits, Darnell's repertoire - his oeuvre, if you can apply that term to anything that includes shots of a secretary whizzing on her boss' armchair - stands out.

When Stunts Go Bad. When Disaster Strikes. World's Worst Drivers.

There are television shows that inform. There are those that entertain. And then there are Fox's ratings-grabbing specials, which seize you by the lapels, slam you against the wall, and leave you crumpled like a cheap pizza box in the corner, feeling used and somehow greasy, but, in a sick way, eager to do it again.

Don Ohlmeyer of NBC has called the specials ``snuff TV'' and ``the equivalent of auto-accident programming.'' (Of course, that was before NBC ordered 13 episodes of a program tentatively titled World's Scariest Home Videos.)

Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker has said they're ``bad television.''

The Breaking the Magician's Code series has earned the ire of magicians worldwide, who say Fox is damaging their ability to earn a living by putting their secrets on prime time.

And When Animals Attack, promoted with the tag line ``They're Big. They're Bad. And They're Biting,'' has animal-rights activists and other animal-show producers up in arms, saying the shows present a skewed, ultraviolent view of the natural world.

None of which has caused 36-year-old Philadelphia native Darnell to waver in his highly successful formula of crashes, chases, blood, and the occasional fast-food chef spitting in the soup.

And the specials are pulling in droves of viewers. For the second week of November, When Good Pets Go Bad was the 16th-highest rated out of 76 shows on the networks. The following week, Busted on the Job came in 12th - Fox's most-watched special ever.

Better yet, the viewers they attract are those most coveted by advertisers: read, young men.

Better still, the shows do great on their premiere outings, but continue to draw eyeballs on their second, third and fourth go-round - up to 90 percent of the numbers they attracted the first time out.

Add to that their cost - from one-fourth to one-third of what Fox spends to produce one episode of Ally McBeal or The X-Files - and you're looking at one very happy programmer.

Let the critics cringe and moan about the Jerry Springerization of the world, about the below-low-brow subjects, the hype-till-you-drop promotions and slap-dash production values that characterize shows such as Shocking Moments II (the footage, mostly culled from local news broadcasts, can be uneven in quality at best). Mike Darnell is having a good time.

``I try to have fun with it, and I'm delighted that the audience has caught on. People just sort of get it.''

* If ever anyone seemed destined to bring a 300-pound tumor to prime time, that man was Mike Darnell.

Television was a constant in his life: 12, 13 hours a day, background noise to homework, to dates, to family conversation. The worst punishment his parents, Gene and Eileen, could mete out, was ``not only can you not watch TV, you have to read a book.''

Early on, Darnell was a critical watcher, constantly trying to figure out what made the tube tick: which shows would work, whose stars would rise. ``I could - and can - watch anything,'' Darnell says. ``Infomercials, crap, quality stuff. And it's like someone saying, `Do you know the difference between gourmet food and junk?' Well, yes. But I can enjoy both. I get the landscape.''

Maybe that's because he was part of it.

Darnell grew up in the Northeast (Loesche Elementary, Baldi Junior High). As a kid, he entered talent shows that the Police Athletic League ran. His rendition of ``Candyman'' landed him a manager. He did commercials and voice-overs, Hartz Flea Collar spots, and ads for Geno's chicken. When he was 12, he and his family moved to California, where Darnell continued to work, doing in the neighborhood of 60 commercials, showing up on Kojak, Sanford and Son, Gimme a Break, and Welcome Back, Kotter. In 1976, he got his big break starring in Big John, Little John, a Saturday-morning show that lasted only a season. ``I always played the tough little kid,'' Darnell said.

Darnell stopped growing at five feet; the work stopped coming when he hit 19. Darnell remembers showing up at an audition and meeting another grown-up child actor who was waiting tables. ``I liked performing. I liked being on camera. But I wasn't going to starve for it,'' he said.

So he got serious about college (Cal State Northridge), got a job as a bank teller, played a little piano at a place called the Velvet Turtle in Thousand Oaks, and started landing internships: Entertainment Tonight (``but I hated it''), then KTTV, the local Fox affiliate, in the news department. ``I didn't want to do news, but it was a way in,'' Darnell said.

These were the early, early days of Fox, which launched in 1986. ``We had, I think, four nights of original programming. We had The Simpsons, and Married With Children, and a lot of other crap I'm sure everyone would like to forget.''

It was the perfect place for a young guy with vision. ``Fox had holes to fill,'' Darnell said, and he had ideas for how to fill them.

His first effort: Beverly Hillbillies 90210, an hourlong show based on the not-untenable premise that the producers of the zip-coded teen fave had stolen all their ideas - from Dylan's sideburns on down - from The Beverly Hillbillies. That two-hour local special beat what the networks were offering in prime time.

By 1991, Darnell was creating and executive-producing specials for six Fox-owned and -operated stations - things like ``day-in-the-life'' specials, taking footage of Fox shows such as Roc and Martin and Married With Children and cutting it to make it look as if it were unfolding over the same day.

By 1994, he'd made it to the network, overseeing special programming for all of Fox. It wasn't an instant fit: ``There were a lot of layers to go through. I was honestly frustrated.''

Then came ``a fatal phone call,'' from some producers Darnell knew who told him they had something he simply had to see.

``I set up a meeting, which I completely forgot about, and they show up with this European video stock, and I'm watching and going, `What is it?' and they said, `Well, it's an alien.' And goddamn if it didn't look like 17 and a half minutes of an alien being autopsied.''

``I felt in my heart, of course, that it wasn't real,'' said Darnell. ``But it was good.''

Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction raised eyebrows among Fox execs. ``They were very leery of it, to say the least. Every one of them, before it aired, said, `This is all Darnell.' I was so nervous.''

Autopsy, of course, went on to become the most-aired special Fox has ever done. The ball was rolling. Darnell started looking around for more.

``When Animals Attack,'' he begins. ``I looked at the stuff out there, like on National Geographic specials, and it was always some animal kicking the crap out of some guy.'' A different viewer might have been appalled. Darnell's take? ``Hey, can we do a whole hour of this?''

And that's the philosophy in a nutshell - find the most violent, outrageous, colorful or controversial segment of any given show, and do a whole hour of it. That, says Darnell, is entertainment.

``And they really are harmless. When you look at the world in general, this is fun!''

He scoffs at the notion that there's nothing uplifting or socially redeeming about watching stunts that go wrong or pets that go bad. And if they're appealing to emotions, well, what on TV isn't? ``What does Home Improvement do socially? Nothing. It's just entertainment.''

* True facts about Mike Darnell. He and his wife, Carolyn, are major Barry Manilow fans. In 1984, he sang the national anthem at a Dodgers game, which he says is the scariest thing he's ever done. In his professional life, he's a daredevil. In person, he's ``afraid of everything,'' especially bugs.

He seems more amused than frightened at the way he's enraged magicians since the night he went to an L.A. magic club, marveled at the tricks, wondered how to do them, and decided to find out and put the answers on TV. ``I bet, with the right incentive, we'll find somebody,'' Darnell said. ``And let's put a mask on him! And let's film it at a secret location!''

Magic's Greatest Secrets Revealed was a huge hit. ``I got the same reaction everywhere: `It's horrible!' '' Darnell said. ``I had an agent call me to tell me it was horrible. I said, `You just sold me When Stunts Go Bad. . . . What are you talking about?'

``So we aired it, and it was really big and controversial. But 99.9999 percent of the complaints I got were from magicians.''

Not big magicians, he points out, not name magicians. Just lots of notes from guys who signed themselves ``The Amazing Larry.'' He pauses. ``And I did get some from clowns.''

He's delighted when his shows are parodied, even on his own network. (Remember Ally McBeal's ill-considered trip to the fake-o confessional, where she was unwittingly taped for possible inclusion in World's Most Outrageous Confessions?)

He has plenty of tricks up his sleeves, including a plan to sink a Titanic-sized ship on live TV in May. ``Everyone's talking about raising the Titanic,'' he crows. ``I'm going to sink it!''

And more reality-based specials, including the perhaps inevitable Cheating Spouses Caught on Tape. (``We won't reveal who they are,'' Darnell promises), and an hour based exclusively on the medical oddities that are part and parcel of the Guinness World Records specials, which Darnell also oversees.

And last but not least: Mike Darnell is a daddy. He and his wife Carolyn are the proud parents of Chelsea, who's 6 months old. ``She loves television,'' says Darnell. ``She loves to go to sleep to the sound of sirens.''

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