Simpson debacle is step back for Fox TV

November 25, 2006|By Martin Miller | Martin Miller,Los Angeles Times

It's been years since his criminal and civil trials, yet O.J. Simpson continues to reveal who we are. That can apply to television networks as well as people.

On the strength of such hit shows as American Idol, 24 and House, Fox Television in recent years seemed to be gradually washing away its original image as a network unafraid to wade in the primordial ooze of the lowest common denominator.

Who can forget Alien Autopsy, When Animals Attack! and Celebrity Boxing?

But Fox's ill-fated decision to step back into the muck with a two-part televised interview with Simpson only to be forced earlier this week to cancel after grossly miscalculating public outrage raises questions about the network's split personality. Does the humiliation of the O.J. debacle, paired with its successful mainstream programming, put any future freak-show projects in jeopardy? Or, is the carnival element too deeply embedded at Fox, part of its DNA code?

"You've got to wonder, `What were they thinking?'" said Brad Adgate, research director for ad buyer Horizon Media. "This hearkens back to the old Fox, like when they did Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? They don't need to do that anymore. What it says really is that old habits die hard."

Fox executives have steadfastly refused to comment on the origin of the Simpson show. The network also declined to comment for this story.

But the Simpson interview bears the familiar stamp of what many regard as the network's secret weapon (or shame, as say some critics): Mike Darnell, executive vice president of alternative programming.

Sometimes likened to a P.T. Barnum for the electronic age, the 5-foot-tall executive, who as a child actor appeared on episodes of Kojak and Welcome Back, Kotter, is famous for sniffing out the oddball tastes of American pop culture. In more than a decade at Fox, Darnell, 44, has scored a string of ratings triumphs - content aside - that would be the envy of any network.

His breakthrough was 1995's Alien Autopsy, built around a supposed military autopsy of an outer space-looking creature. The program, later proved a hoax, attracted more than 11 million viewers, making it one of Fox's top-rated shows then.

More recent projects shepherded by Darnell include: 2001's Temptation Island, a reality-based show where hot single people try to break up couples in exotic locations, and 2003's Joe Millionaire, where an average guy posed as a millionaire to marriage-minded women.

Martin Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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