Darnell on First-Run, Freedom and His New Life as a Seller

In the midst of Netflix making its presence known by nabbing 14 Emmy nominations — including one for outstanding drama — and cosplayers making their annual pilgrimage to San Diego for Comic-Con, Warner Bros. stole a few headlines Thursday by hiring former Fox reality chief Mike Darnell as president of unscripted and alternative programming for the TV studio.

It marks the biggest move for the studio under Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara since he was elevated into the role early this year. In his new role, Darnell will be in charge of reality programming for both Telepictures — which will see him handle first-run syndication while president Hilary Estey McLoughlin transitions into a producing role — and Warner Horizon.

Darnell spoke with B&C contributing editor Tim Baysinger about why he took another executive job so soon and what it’s like to be back with Peter Roth Warner Bros. TV group president and chief content officer. An edited transcript follows.

You left Fox for a change. Why take another executive job so soon?
My vision was to try to do something other than network television. My first instinct was maybe I’ll go out and be my own producer. I had lots of those [type of] offers and it was very nice.

But Peter Roth, who I’ve known for years, came to me and he’s a very good salesman. I looked at what Warner Bros. had to offer which was all the things I was talking about: First-run, cable and digital. It was a lot of things that I wanted to try to do and this is giving me that opportunity.

I felt like, here’s an amazing time to really try something with someone I love [Roth]. It felt like the right thing. To be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting to take a corporate job and I had other offers in that realm too, but this just felt right. It’s really giving me a chance to stretch my fingers and try to create new shows and new ideas.

What’s appealing to you working for a studio vs. a network like Fox?
One’s a buyer and one’s a seller, so they are different jobs. At Fox — which I loved and achieved a lot there — you only have the one network and the one place to sell your stuff.

From the studio’s vantage point, you can basically sell anywhere…I think that’s the big appeal: a bigger platform to sell your stuff.

What was it about Warner Bros. that enticed you?
They’re big in cable, they’re big in network and they’re developing in first-run. They already have their fingers across a lot of that stuff and they’ve done really well at it.

The other thing is it’s a very embracing place and [Roth] is incredible.

What were your conversations like with Roth?
We’re fans of each other, I think that helped. They want me to have the freedom to try new things and be aggressive with the programming and have a vision.

That was some of the stuff that got me really excited.

How does it feel to be back working with him?
It feels great. It’s somebody that I just loved working with early in my career.

He really gives you a sense of excitement and a sense of freedom.

You’ll now be overseeing The Voice, an arch rival of Fox’s American Idol and The X Factor. Do you feel any loyalty to those programs or are the gloves off?
Of course I’m going to miss them. Obviously, Idol is huge part of my life and I’m going to miss it.

But, it’s exciting to start something new and to have new shows that sort of have a vibrancy to them too to work on. Both The Voice and Idol are very good television shows.

You’ve handled primetime, but with new role will also be handling first-run syndication. What is your view on that strategy? Does Estey McLoughlin’s move to a new role signal a change in that strategy now that you are coming aboard?
I’m just starting. My sense is that they’ve done a really good over there and have some really good television shows like TMZEllen and Extra.

There’s two ways to look at it: One is to try to unique things within those genres that exist and the other is to try to come up with completely unique ideas that no one has done before.