Tonight, Fox launches its latest reality experiment: Does Someone Have to Go?, where offices let employees take charge for 48 hours to decide the fate of fellow staffers and make overall recommendations for improvement. Billed as “Survivor meets The Office,” the project has been in the works at Fox for four years, with an early harsher draft of the concept drawing some controversy. Below, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment Mike Darnell discusses the kinder, gentler Does Someone Have to Go? (preview video below), as well as fall’s newly female-dominated X Factor panel and kid-contestant MasterChef spinoff.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This show has been through some changes since we first heard about it. Can you talk about the evolution of the idea?
Mike Darnell: The initial pitch was when the recession was in full force. Endemol brought me something called Toxic Office. Around the same time I saw a news report about a woman who was having problems with her business and she decided to open up the books to show everybody all the salaries and let them decide how the money should be distributed. Our mistake was not just the timing of the idea, but that it concentrated on businesses with economic problems. This does not. This is about offices with dysfunctional problems. All these are million-dollar businesses. This is not about not making money, but solving dysfunction.
Still, the question is: Will viewers during a semi-insecure economic climate watch a show where everyday folks get fired?
Darnell: Here’s the thing. You never know until you put it on the air. It’s harder and harder to find formats that break out. The thing that makes this work is it’s relatable. If you work in an office, you probably feel like the boss doesn’t know the real problems and feel that if you were given the reins you could solve all the problems. That’s the main drive. It’s Survivor meets The Office, but instead of being on an island, it’s your job. In a roundabout way to answer your question: The workers take it very seriously, it’s not that scary to watch, but it is compelling.
So it’s more about making a business healthier, potentially by getting rid of somebody that the audience will feel kind of has it coming.
Darnell: Absolutely. In all three offices, it’s been cathartic. All these businesses have improved [both their earnings] and on a functional level. All their employees, to a man, are happy they went through it — and that includes some of those who were fired because they went on to better things. It’s what company retreats are supposed to do, but don’t end up doing.
What specifically in the episodes do you think viewers will find the most intriguing?
Darnell: The conference room scenes where they found out what other employees think of them. Revealing [employee] salaries to the whole office is pretty compelling stuff. People usually watch with open mouths, they can’t believe we got people to do it.
You announced a new X Factor panel, which has just started shooting. What will this new configuration bring to the show?
Darnell: I don’t know yet. Obviously no one’s had three women judges before. You have this Charlie’s Angels thing going on with Simon Cowell. From what I heard, it went very well today.
Are there any format changes this season?
Darnell: There will be, but I can’t go into that yet. Some of them will be major.
What have you learned from the reality show shakeups. What qualities do you think make a successful judges panel nowadays?
Darnell: If anything we’ve learned that big names don’t draw a lot of viewers to the shows. They have to be a great judge. It has to feel familial and fun. That’s the main thing.
MasterChef has been a ratings growth-story for the network and you now have Junior MasterChef coming in the fall — or as one CBS executive called it, Kids With Knives. Kid reality shows can be tricky, right?
Darnell: We have the blessing of having seen the format done [in other markets]. The main thing is to treat them like adults. Because otherwise it becomes a kiddy show and it doesn’t work. We made that mistake on American Juniors. We treat them like adults and it works beautifully. The producer told me the winner could have won a regular MasterChef.
Surely the judges aren’t as harsh as they are with adult contestants, though, right?
Darnell: Actually they’re pretty tough. I think you’ll be shocked.
RELATED: EW’s Does Someone Have to Go review