So what’s Mike Darnell up to these days, anyway?
A month ago, when Fox announced in the wake of the Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire? fiasco that it would ease off on the exploitative reality programming that was Darnell’s specialty, the decision was portrayed as a sort of sea change: Finally, a media company realizes that there is such a thing as too much bad taste. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s not how it works. In fact, while the principals would rather not talk about it this way, the future of the fledgling UPN television network is all about bad taste, and how to leverage it.
Viacom and merger partner CBS have snatched UPN away from its erstwhile partner Chris-Craft but will need a waiver from the FCC to allow two broadcast networks (UPN and CBS) to remain under one corporate roof. The Viacom/CBS argument will probably focus on the fact that about 40 percent of UPN’s audience is black (Moesha is one of the network’s hits). If the FCC forced UPN out on its own, it would likely crumble, and the government agency is no doubt loath to kill off a network responsible for popular black programming.
So if UPN is so fragile, having lost something like $800 million to date, then why does Viacom want it? The answer has little or nothing to do with building or maintaining a black audience and everything to do with Smackdown!, the two-hour weekly World Wrestling Federation extravaganza that is a carnival of perverse taste. Smackdown has caught on for the network and is now extremely popular with precisely the same young male audience that made hits of Darnell creations like When Stunts Go Bad, World’s Scariest Police Chases, and so on (the one that was all about swarms was pretty entertaining). While Viacom/CBS makes its case for the importance of popular black programming, it will also be attempting to negotiate a hammerlock on Smackdown! and to wrest additional WWF programming away from cable station USA and onto TNN, which is already owned by the (ahem) Tiffany Network.
For Fox, the newfound focus on quality, whether sincere or not, is reasonable enough–the network has already ridden the wave of schlock far enough and established itself as fully viable. UPN, however, desperately needs to grow its audience. If Darnell hasn’t sent his résumé to UPN yet, he ought to. But maybe those negotiations should wait until after the FCC has weighed in.