The TCA’s summer press tour has offered many critics the chance to question the state of broadcast and their commitment to quality, and Dana Walden, co-chairman and co-CEO, Fox Television Group addressed that to kick off Fox’s day in the sun (or rather, the air-conditioned ballroom of the Beverly Hilton).
“The business is not easy for anyone. Netflix is starting to cancel shows. We’ve seen cable networks start to close their scripted programs. Big wins are going to be harder to come by,” said Walden. “We’d happily put the best of what we’re doing alongside the best of cable and SVOD.”
Walden attributes that to working with creators who are passionate about broadcast and the larger audience it entails, and its continued ability to shape popular culture.
“Our strong upfront defied industry expectations,” she said. “Only broadcast advertisers can deliver messages in a premium environment, week after week, all year long.”
Fox has seen 85% of their scripted series more than double their audience in the past year, while Fox Now has grown 200% over the past five years, perhaps attributable to the network having the youngest audience of the big four.
Perhaps most dramatic of Fox’s announcements was The Four, a new singing competition series from Armoza Formats and ITV Entertainment that will be forever compared to American Idol given that ABC is banking on a return to form for American Idol.
“We won’t put it up against The Voice or American Idol,” said Walden. “We’re not developing it to create noise in the same space. We believe in it.”
The Four begins with four “finalists” chosen from their auditions by the show’s panel of experts, and each week, the singers defend their spots onstage against challengers vying to replace them. If they’re outperformed, they’ll go home. Anyone who thinks they can unseat “the four” can submit an audition online (including any finalists sent home) to be voted on by fans of the show. The contest’s eventual winner will be helped in their career by the star-makers that make up the expert panel. While there is no word on the panelists at this time, Fox promises a yet-to-be-announced 2018 premiere date.
“Its concept feels fresh and timely and it has inherent urgency,” said Walden. “It brings a new level of interactivity to the experience. One week you could be sitting on your couch, the next week you could be on stage performing. There’s nothing like a big unscripted hit to drive viewership and circulation.”
Fox wants The Four to refocus on the singers, not the increasingly star-studded judge panels seen on The Voice (and yes, American Idol). Fox hopes to launch the career of a new music star, the spirit of which they believe has been missing in the reality space.
“It’s an experiment. We’ve never done anything like it before. The show flipped the competition model on its head. It’s one of the cleanest formats I’ve seen,” said Rob Wade, president, alternative entertainment & specials, Fox Broadcasting Company. “It’s like Game of Thrones with better singing and less nudity.”
When asked whether Fox or ABC made the mistake on American Idol, Walden acknowledged the tough decision the network had to make.
“American Idol was an extremely expensive show and its ratings had dropped 70% in the three years prior to us getting there. And then an additional 25% since. The economics were terrible at that moment. We spent a lot of time talking with Fremantle [Media] about solutions to the problem. Can we cut costs to the show? While they were open to minor cosmetic changes, they were wary of disrupting the chemistry of that panel, who are excellent but contributed to the high cost. They did not want to experiment with the format. They liked the show the way it was. They preferred to end this run than do anything that dramatically changed format,” said Walden.
“Fremantle, and I don’t blame them, felt the format worked and wanted to protect it. It left us with a dilemma: moving forward at that extraordinary loss or sending the show off for some period of time. All together we made a decision that this is a good time to celebrate the show, designate it a farewell season and to genuinely message in a meaningful and expensive way, and viewers responded.”
But when American Idol was put on the block so soon after its farewell, Fox was put in another unenviable position.
“Would you ever like to have the show back? Yes. Did you want it a year or two later? No. We thought it was fraudulent to our viewers if we didn’t rest for awhile. We didn’t want it to come back so soon, and we weren’t aggressive as necessary to get that show, and another network stepped in.”
Clearly, Fox hopes that The Four can transcend this “us vs. them” debate, but it’ll be awhile before that’s the case.
Fox kept things musical by announcing the premiere date for its next live musical, A Christmas Story, on Sunday December 17 (7:00-10:00 PM ET live/PT tape-delayed). The three-hour event stars Maya Rudolph as Ralphie Parker’s mother, with more casting announcements to come. The show will be directed by Emmy nominee Scott Ellis (30 Rock), with music from La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
While mum on the details, Fox’s next foray into live musicals, Rent, is ramping up development, and scheduled for 2018.
In the meantime, fans of music will cherish Fox’s new Wednesday one-two punch of Empire and STAR, premiering September 27 at 8 PM and 9 PM, respectively.
On the other end of the spectrum is the announcement that Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) will join the cast of the previously announced 9-1-1 from creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, opposite Emmy- and Academy-Award nominee Angela Bassett. The procedural drama explores the lives of police, paramedics and firefighters responding to the iconic 9-1-1 call, and is set to debut in 2018. Murphy’s long-time Emmy Award nominee collaborator Tim Minear (Feud) has joined the series as executive producer and showrunner, with Lethal Weapon’s McG onboard to direct the series premiere.
The series expands Fox’s partnership with Murphy and his foundation Half, as half of all the director slots will be filled by women, people of color, and members of LGBT community.
While Fox has been mostly lauded for its commitment to diversity, The X-Files creator Chris Carter has been under fire for their lack thereof in the writer’s room, and Walden addressed the situation.
“Chris is making moves in the right direction. I don’t want to make any excuses, but after 200+ episodes [of a show] that has a very deep and specific mythology, where the fanbase has high expectations to deliver on those easter eggs, the tendency is to rely on the people who helped you on the original when you’re just doing ten episodes,” said Walden. “The crew that has been with Chris for a very long time were all males. It’s not an excuse, but explains how we ended up in that situation in the first place.”
For the new season, two of the ten episodes will be written by women, two will be directed by women, with half of the directors being diverse.
Fox also addressed the future of some of its other notable franchises.
While 24: Legacy was canceled by Fox earlier this year, the network is still mulling over the franchise’s future.
“Perhaps it will live as a more anthological franchise. We felt really good about a lot of the last season. It was a hard decision,” said Walden. “It felt like where we left off, to continue telling stories about those exact stories in that exact world, felt very close to what we did in the original. Our goal was to do something different that genuinely extends the franchise.
Fox has met with Howard Gordon and Brian Grazer to figure out where the next version might live.
“We want to take that ticking clock, the incredible urgency in the real-time storytelling format, and apply it to something else,” said David Madden, president, entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Company. “It probably will not be the CTU. It will be some other venue, using that same style, in another mode.”
Fox also talked about the future of Prison Break.
“There’s nothing that we’re currently planning on, but we’re always interested in new angles on stories that come out of our library,” said Madden.
The network also wouldn’t call it quits on Wayward Pines. M. Night Shyamalan has talked with Dana and David about what a third season would be, but no decision has been made.
While no decision has been made, Fox hopes that today’s news will make people decide to choose Fox and Fox Now in the fall.
[All images courtesy of Fox]