Fox whiz catches people 'in the act'
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(CNN) -- Remember "Candid Camera"? Debuting way back in 1948, it was the first show that caught people "in the act" just for our viewing enjoyment. These days, reality-based shows might involve wild police chases, vicious animals, and the, er, inspiring "busted on the job" -- all concepts created by TV whiz Mike Darnell.
"I'd call myself almost a fraidy cat," says Darnell, 36, the executive vice president of specials at Fox. "I'm very gentle. I'm afraid of almost everything."
Yet he's the man behind shows that have been a ratings gold mine for the Fox network, from "Guinness World Records" to "When Animals Attack."
This month, Darnell is bringing us more than a dozen more hours of wild police videos, shocking moments caught on tape, and the video version of "Guinness" -- which doesn't show footage of anything so tame as the world's largest ball of twine.
Asked whether he's looking for stuff that's simply gross, he admits that sometimes he is -- "'Guinness,' for sure."
"Guinness World Records Primetime" was such a hit as a summer series that it won a spot on Fox's Tuesday night lineup. Darnell's favorite segment on the August premiere: a 300-pound tumor, which he says he loves.
"When someone said it -- first of all, that (it) is a world record at all ... fascinates people, that you would actually have a world record tumor," he says. "It wasn't something that someone created. It wasn't the world's biggest burrito, it was, you know, something that happened to someone. OK, now, this is really, really, really shocking."
Weaned on TV
So what happened to Mike Darnell that made him want to put this stuff on TV? Well, as a child actor, he appeared in commercials and starred in a short-lived '70s children's show called "Big John, Little John." When he wasn't acting on television, he was getting his TV fix, watching for bliss-filled hours every day.
"I swear, it must (have been) 13 hours a day," Darnell recalls. "And I still do. It's on all the time. I was sort of hypnotized by it as a kid, I think. I just loved it."
"By the time I was 12 or 13 years old, I knew how to do ratings: I would take the fall 'TV Guide' issue -- even without seeing the shows -- and just, sort of, go over each section and, you know, each show and try to make predictions, and I was pretty accurate," he says.
Darnell cut his teeth as a tape librarian at the local Fox station in Los Angeles. But as he rose up the ranks, he had no idea his big break would come in the form of a close encounter with a dead alien.
"We had a show on called 'Encounters.' A guy that had worked on that called me up -- and I really didn't know him -- and he said, 'I got this tape you've got to see.' I said, 'Well, what is it?' He said, 'Well, it's an alien.'
"I'm like, 'Well, what do you mean?' He said, 'Well, it's an alien. It's an alien being autopsied.' I'm thinking, 'Well, OK, I don't believe it, but gee, I'd like to see what it is,' so he stuck it in, and boy, if it didn't look like 18 minutes of an alien being autopsied. And I was -- wow!"
It wowed audiences, too. When it aired, "Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction" was Fox's highest-rated special ever. It put Darnell in charge of specials for the network. Next came "When Animals Attack," spawned after network bosses noticed that animal-genre specials had succeeded for National Geographic specials on NBC.
Doing research for the Fox show, Darnell says, "I looked at a few of the shows, and I think on one show, I saw one piece where an animal attacked a guy, and I said 'Jeez, if I could get a whole show together...' because that was the thing that got me; the rest of it I'd seen before.
"I said, 'I want you together where it's just a bunch of animals who're attacking a bunch of people. That'd be a great hour!'"
Since then, Darnell has shelled out heavy doses of wild police chases, brazen acts on the job and an unfettered parade of shocking moments on tape. In "Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed," he even exposed age-old magic tricks.
Often called the P.T. Barnum of the electronic age, Darnell says keeping his hard-to-reach young, male viewers is a priority, and they need adrenaline.
"You've got to get people excited. You've got to give them a reason to come into the tent, and then, hopefully, once they get there, you give them a reason to stay," he says.
But Ken Tucker, a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, says such programming is the wrong direction for television, since it aims for the lowest common denominator.
"It's not good television. It's not good for the state of television, for the kind of moral fiber of television to have that kind of programming become widespread and popular," Tucker says.
And Jeff Cole of UCLA's Center for Communication Policy agrees. His office issues a comprehensive report on TV violence.
"We tried to distinguish between violence which, in its context, might send an appropriate message, and violence which, within its context, might send an inappropriate message," Cole says. "And these reality specials tend to be violence without any context."
But Darnell disagrees, saying that while his shows get their viewers' adrenaline pumping, they also put real-life spectacles in context.
"It's the same pictures of violence depicted that you see on your local news every day, and certainly in news magazines," he says.
"So the theme is 'World's Scariest Police Chases,'" he continues, citing one example. "So it's an hour of police chases. And then we put it in context -- you know, this guy was running from this, he shouldn't have been, and you never are going to get away with it if you try to run."
And where does he draw the line? "That's a good question," he answers. "I draw the line with things that are going to hurt people."
Going too far? They say yes
Some residents of a cul-de-sac in Boise, Idaho, say they were hurt by a Fox crew shooting a segment for a "Candid Camera"-style special called "World's Nastiest Neighbors."
Actors posing as residents moved into an empty house on their quiet street, and, neighbors say, proceeded to fill the front lawn with pink flamingos, trampolines, outlandish statues and a mud-wrestling pit.
"They were talking to our children, and saying things like 'cute little honey pies,' and the kids play out here in this cul-de-sac all the time," says resident Marge Penfold. "Anytime that you came out in the front cul-de-sac, they were in your face.
Darnell couldn't say whether the camera crew went too far, or whether the neighbors just took the incident too seriously. But he did say that based on the Boise citizens' reaction, the whole "Candid Camera" genre could be too touchy and maybe "it's better to stick with the stuff that already exists."
Meanwhile, he'll keep listening to pitches for new shows. He passed on a recent suggestion to air the "World's Scariest Throw-Up Moments." But he does hope to sink a huge ship, live, for a future show.
"The 'Titanic' was a great movie, and it was probably recreated beautifully, but this is your first chance to experience what it is really like to go down on a ship, and to see it sink. And so for an hour, we'll play that out live and see how it works," he says.
The bottom line, of course, is ratings; the recent specials "World's Wildest Police Videos" and "Shocking Moments Caught On Tape," helped the Fox network notch its best ratings in nearly six years among the all-important demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds.
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