Mel's Diner: Earley Rising

Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley, who came up through PR and marketing, reveals why the broadcaster is using counterintuitive strategies to change with the times

Why This Matters

Mayor and COO

How many COO’s in TV do you know who are also a Mayor…on Foursquare?

FOOD, down the street from his office on the Fox lot, became Joe Earley’s go-to when he moved to the neighborhood about six years ago to reduce his commute. He says he’s a fan of the homey, New York feel of the order-at-the-counter restaurant, which offers a range of fresh, healthy choices from breakfast to soup he swears by to birthday cakes.

Earley frequents FOOD with his partner and daughter—sometimes visiting twice a weekend—and if he gets away from the office for lunch, you’ll likely find him here then too.

Ever on social media, Earley’s colleagues tease him about being able to count on his weekend status updates from FOOD. Indeed, he’s spent time as Mayor (an honor given by the site to top regulars) of FOOD on Foursquare in the past, a distinction he reclaimed after checking in for our breakfast. —MG

mgrego@nbmedia.com | @melissagrego

Earley3.JPGTHE DISH: Despite having gotten little sleep over the prior two weeks, Joe Earley enters FOOD, down the street from his Fox lot office, at 8 a.m., cheerfully chatting with the owner.

The fruits of his first full development, production and launch cycle as chief operating officer of Fox Broadcasting premiered the week before, and while it's still early, the news certainly is better than last fall—when Fox's Mob Doctor was DOA and the Tuesday comedy block failed to spark.

Given CBS' success this summer with Under the Dome, and Fox opening well with Sleepy Hollow and seeing Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Dads at least at first hold their own against tough competition, "Everyone sighed a little in relief that people were going to come back to television," Earley says. "Every year, you don't know how much of a shift there is in delayed viewing. You can have your tracking numbers. You can have your anecdotal. But until that number comes in, you don't know."

Well, Earley knew a little bit. After the Fox veteran's landmark strategy to embrace delayed viewing with last midseason's "set your DVR" campaign for The Following apparently paid off (the show tied NBC's Revolution for the top-rated new series of last season), Earley and company set what he calls the network's most complex marketing matrix ever for the fall slate, including messages to record, watch live, catch up on VOD and tune into repeats.

When live-plus-three-day ratings came in, Sleepy Hollow's premiere jumped 43% from its live-plus-same-day number to a 5.0/13 in adults 18-49, making it Fox's highest-rated fall drama premiere in 12 years, according to the network. Fox renewed the show for a second season last week.

Earley discussed the new marketing scheme at Fox, efforts to shift the network premiere cycle and plans to expand their multiplatform businesses. An edited transcript follows.

Last year for The Following, you did the campaign to set your DVR. This year you're also talking about VOD in marketing. Why did you decide to encourage delayed viewing?

Where that all began was with the nonlaunch Tuesday night last year. What we actually saw when we looked at the live numbers was the night held straight through. The campaign worked. For those people who watched live, we gave them four compatible shows and they stayed through the night and watched. Then we saw when the DVR [numbers] came the two returning shows, New Girl and Raising Hope, shot up, which then created the appearance that the other shows didn't perform. [The new shows] did not make it into people's DVRs. So they didn't even sample.

We realized that New Girl and Raising Hope rose. They were already in [viewers' DVRs]….So we said, times have changed. If people gave these shows a chance, they would love them....It dawned on me that I will actually set a season pass for something and because I have it I will give the show more chances than I normally would. If I turned it on live and found a so-so episode, I would just say 'Oh, it's not for me.' But because my DVR would give it to me again the next week, I would say, ‘You know what. I'm gonna try it again and see if I like it.' That was really important to recognize that the viewers were watching it and using it to curate. So for The Following we did the controversial push toward it that was very successful....I really felt that we had sort of hit that tipping point.

And this led to a similar plan for Sleepy Hollow?

We did the same patterns for Sleepy Hollow. Then we had an on-air repeat; we all know that the cable model benefits from their repeats. So we scheduled on-air repeats for all of our premieres. And then we did catch-up messaging....We did take it a step further for all of our new shows this year, and I don't know if I want to give competitive info. I'll just say we figured out a way that people can set their DVRs further in advance. One of the challenges with DVRs is that the shows only come up about 15 days before the show airs.....We worked out an old-school solution to a technical obstacle. So twice over the summer this year, we told people to set their DVRs for the new fall shows. And then we did the traditional DVR message right before launch....We went back to the linear push only the week before.

We have a foot in both worlds, and that's made marketing a lot more complicated.... While Sleepy Hollow is not a serialized show, the viewing of the series is definitely going to be enhanced if you've seen the pilot. So we did a big push to catch up on those. And also all of this has been done for Dads and Brooklyn. But with Dads and Brooklyn, you can join at any time. So there's a bigger push on Sleepy to get people caught up and really make sure everyone sees that first episode.

We did sort of the same model and it's been more successful than The Following. So it opened bigger. The repeat is larger. We're seeing VOD numbers that are larger as well. So we at least feel we don't have our head in the sand about the way a huge group of viewers are going to consume the show....The VOD is fantastic because it's fast-forward-disabled, which is fantastic for our advertisers who are driving our business.... You can have VOD count in the C3 if you have the same commercial load in it.... We will tell you primarily to watch it on-air. That's always our goal. But if we've got to catch you in a different way, we will. It is a super-complex matrix right now.

Driving the launch was simple, and the moment post-launch happened we had these fractures. If you are driving and you see a digital billboard, it was telling you to catch up for three days. Then it would switch and tell you about the repeat. As soon as the repeat is over, it's telling you about the next linear airing and that's just on a digiboard. The formula is different if you're seeing an ad online, if you're seeing an ad in VOD, if you're seeing an ad onair. Each one of them, we're thinking: 'Who's the viewer? How are they watching?'

It's become that complicated. It isn't just roll out key art with tune in on that anymore.... It has never been this complex. It's a lot of coordinating from scheduling to marketing to the marketing team that deals with the [multichannel video programming distributors}.

That brings us to the expansion of your role. Now that you're COO, you have responsibility across the entire network. Was there one thing you felt you wanted to do at Fox if someday you were given the authority and chance?

As serendipity would have it, the thing I wanted to change most for probably 10 years going back to my publicity days is happening this year. And not because I have a new title and made it happen. It's in line with something [Fox Broadcasting Entertainment chairman] Kevin [Reilly] had wanted to happen for years, which is get out of the development/ production cycle, which is no longer conducive to producing and sustaining hits.

I've been complaining about it since I was head of publicity, because I was saying, 'You start production so late. You deliver these episodes so close to air.' If there's any reshooting or recasting of a pilot, we don't have it. Then when I moved into marketing, it became amplified for me because I was saying, 'You keep delivering your show for its airdate, not its marketing date.' Marketing is so crucial now. The universe is fractured. We need to reach people. And you are still focusing on when it goes on-air, and it's shortsighted."

It will probably mean that shows will have been ordered before we ever get to the upfront. And so the loss of the quote-unquote 'surprise' at the upfront is the only downside to all of this. But I don't think that surprise translates into dollars. It's just tradition.

Why is this finally happening? Has something changed corporately where you're getting the budget and the support?

I believe this is happening out of sheer determination. But as with everything else in the industry, money talks. So what it requires is the commitment to do series orders instead of just pilot orders. Which costs more.

Kevin has publicly acknowledged that we have a bigger budget this year. One of the most amazing things about working for [this company] is the entrepreneurial spirit that really comes from Rupert Murdoch himself and James Murdoch. They all believe in investing and acknowledging that change is needed. Experimentation is needed, and that requires funding....We're doing a lot of experimenting. We have these multiplatform production entities, we have Animation Domination Hi-Def. We have [YouTube channel] WIGS...and we are close to doing an unscripted version and doing a comedy version.

Do you see the comedy and unscripted digital production entities coming this season?

I think so. Yes, before we have breakfast next year at this time.

Why are you switching your campaign this season from "So Fox" to "We Are Fox?"

Five years ago we started that as a way to rebrand the network and also make it work for local affiliates, which hadn't happened before. I wanted them to be able to localize what we were doing. It was a very successful campaign. ...It was time for a change. But also we really wanted something we could include for our fans. And actually this tag has evolved several times. It started out 'This Is Us.' But as the father of a teenager, I can't put bad grammar on our air. So we changed it to 'This Is Who We Are' and that's just a mouthful. So we're going with 'We Are.' Ultimately 'We Are Fox.'

We can include the fans because we can say 'We Are Audacious,' 'We Are Heartbreaking' you know, 'We Are Gleeks.' 'We Are Fox.' Our affiliates can use it. 'We Are Judgmental' for their judge shows. Or 'We Are Informative' for their news. Or they can say 'We Are Chicago. We Are Fox.' Or 'We Are the Bears. We Are Fox.' Whatever they want to do locally, they can still localize it but we can include our fans in there, which is very, very important to us. And then still brand it and band it all together.

When Mob Doctor didn't launch last year, were you surprised?

I was surprised because it had tested so well. I mean it was really, really high testing. [Series star] Jordana [Spiro] is a super talent and had a lot of action. It had something for everybody. I think the lesson there is that things test well with audiences who are waiting, sitting there waiting to watch it. The trouble we have these days is getting them to watch it in the first place. And, that title, I think was a problem. And we had a lot of discussion about it.

The title?

A lot of people say, 'the title doesn't matter.' The show's the show. It will redefine it. House. There were big battles over the title of the show, House. People will think it's about construction. There was a big contingent in the network who wanted to call it Princeton Planesborough so people understand. And so there was a big fight and the end result of that is that it's actually called House, M.D. But the marketing made the M.D. really tiny anyway. So everyone just called it House.

That's always held up as an example of why the title doesn't matter. I think it does. I think New Girl's title hurt New Girl. I think Mindy's title hurt Mindy. I think Mob Doctor's title hurt Mob Doctor.

You think "New Girl" hurt that show?

I do think so. I wouldn't call a show New Girl. It would create a barrier for men. So you can see how often I don't win the title battle.

On New Girl, which I definitely resisted, I would even have been happier with It's Jess, which is still a girl's name. But it's not completely.... I would say that It's Jess on reflection would have been a bad title. Not only is it still female but it doesn't get to the ensemble and the ensemble is great.

So I probably would have liked to have ended up with something that would have applied to all of them. One of my arguments at the time was she's not going to be new. She's only going to be new when she's moving in. She's not going to be new after that. So it's not even going to make sense.

The creators and the producers were saying, 'She'll always be new at something. She'll be a new teacher or she'll be a new this.' I was like, okay, let's just call it Malarkey. But now it's New Girl. I love it. It's the title of the show. That part has borne out. That is what the show is now. When you hear it, you don't think literally there's a 'New Girl.' [Now] I don't think it's a barrier to men. 

I do think that people still think the show is primarily her though.

And I think there are people at the beginning who made up their mind who we can't un-convince. But now the show I think doesn't even take on a literal meaning anymore. It's just the reality.

With Sleepy Hollow, was there any discussion about that?

I totally embraced Sleepy Hollow. The concern with Sleepy Hollow was worry about title inflation.

Can you explain title inflation?

Title inflation is when you are doing your awareness tracking; you have a show called Sleepy Hollow or you even have a show called Fail Safe or The Munsters. The Michael J. Fox Show. Those things where people are going to say, 'yes I've heard of that.' And they don't necessarily know whether or not they've heard about it as a TV show. 

What we do is we put in some controls for it now where you have subsequent questions. 'Are you aware of it on Fox?' And what we see is the percentage will come down to a realistic level and people who actually understand there's a TV show coming to your network.

Any other titles you fought?

Dads. I have concerns about the title as it might make the show skew older. I have concerns that people will mistakenly think the show is just about the two senior dads as opposed to the two friends in the middle whose dads are moving in with them. It's an office place comedy. Brenda Song is so funny in the show, in the office. And, you know, it takes a while to get to her character from, you know, the title Dads.

As you have said, marketing is crucial. Shows can test great but if you're not seeing them...

Right. The testing on Dads is through the roof. So we've gotta get around critics and to viewers to get them to watch it. Because what we're being told is if they watch it, they will like it.

What are some of the titles you wanted for that?

The one that I was hoping for was Our Dads so they would know it was about the guys. But I don't want it to sound like sour grapes. We can live with it....there was a lot of exploration.

Often, which I think is also the case with New Girl, is when the creator feels so strongly about the title of their show. Then you say, 'You know what, they are the creators. They have that passion.' And, okay, let's just get around the obstacles, which is something we did with New Girl.

We had the guys and then we had two pieces to the tier: one was [New Girl star] Zoe [Deschanel], because she is so recognizable. The other campaign showed the three guys sitting on the couch as she stood on it, because we needed people to know there was male appeal in the show. Male characters. 

For The Mindy Project, we had [creator-star-exec producer] Mindy [Kaling] and then the ensemble. When a show is based on a star's name, like The Mindy Project, there's obviously some recognizability in that. But Mindy is an especially female-sounding name. I don't know why. Because of the 'y' I guess. So we do sort of work harder so that we're constantly showing the male appeal of the show, because that show is unbelievably hilarious.

And crass. In the last episode of Mindy I watched someone make a comparison about how two doctors farted differently.

I'm a huge fan of Mindy's fart jokes. I just read a script the other day that has that delicate moment when a woman might have passed gas for the first time in front of a guy, which just had me laughing out loud on a plane.

So the funny thing about that is it's actually relatable, as opposed to just, "Oh what a funny sound."

The whole thing about Mindy's show is that it's all relatable and, of course, torqued up to the most funny version of it. But it's a really talented ensemble. Genius writing. So funny. But we've got to get more people to watch it. But that does lead me back to what we were talking about, which is that things test really well if the audience is sitting there watching it. But the biggest challenge facing everyone right now is, how do you get them in seats to watch it? How do you get them to watch it the first time? How do you get them to put it in their DVR if they haven't watched it yet?

When it comes to you, Joe Earley, how is this cycle and season different from year's past? What's your involvement that wouldn't have been a year ago?

With every show, even our returning shows, I used to on the publicity and marketing side, I used to just sit there and be able to criticize either our development or our current people or I would just shake my head if I thought there was an episode that either wasn't good enough or had a controversy. I can't get away with that anymore.

I now am hopefully in the trenches with the programming guys and contributing when I can to the process. The way I come to programming is ... as a consumer. When I went from publicity to marketing, I didn't try to tell the promo guys how to cut a promo. Instead I tried to represent how was the consumer interacting with your promo. Do they understand what the show is about? Are they getting the jokes? Does it seem exciting as opposed to you need to cut the string here and there. And the same is true for programming.

Earley_Check.jpgLet's talk about getting inside the fans' heads, how you do that.

I grew up in the Midwest. I'm one of eight kids... I'm the youngest of eight. I have seven nieces and nephews who range from mid-thirties to seven years old and then some of them have kids.... I try to stay connected to that, and I constantly say I don't know what every viewer wants. ...There are a lot of people in this business who, quote-unquote, 'know' what the viewer wants, and I don't think anybody does. The viewer is so complicated. Among the benefits of the new role are now having research under my purview, I can get in there. And I've talked a lot with Will Somers, who's our head of research, about using research in a way that can help programming and marketing not just reflect on the stats of what's happening but try to find a direction and opportunities of what's out there.

What's great is helping sort of tear down walls in departments that may have been siloed before. I always say that I still have the same goal as COO as head of marketing or publicity or any of it, which is create an environment where people can do their best work. That really is my goal. It just has to be a different environment now; that environment used to be so simple.

Speaking of things that are not so simple, there's been a clamoring for data from Internet TV providers. Do you feel that those companies should share that data?

I worked at HBO for three years before coming to Fox. And at that time, we didn't really worry about ratings. It was more about churn. So we didn't put ratings out. I think HBO started putting ratings out when they had great ratings stories. Having worked at a place like that, I can understand why they're not putting it out. I have no doubt if they had a positive story to tell, they would be putting it out. So I guess we're all just left to draw our own conclusions about it.

But we don't have the right to force it. No, we can't tell what the success is. But it's up to them to decide what success is for them. Is their business preventing churn? I don't think it's churn, because putting it all up there at once doesn't stem churn. If they strung episodes out over two months at least to get that subscriber fee for two months, like HBO does, then they could stem churn. So I don't know what their business model is.

We can be really frustrated by it. You know, and a little jealous because they don't get judged by those numbers every morning that we do even though those numbers aren't representing what's really happening. But they're all that's available. But that's not their fault. 

Again, they can either be your foe or you can decide I understand where they fit in the ecosystem, because, you know, catch up and join in. Right now they are a challenge, especially for broadcast from a business standpoint because they are pressuring our studio partners to withhold rights from us because they want exclusivity. So they are using their dollars, which I don't think anyone knows right now whether or not they are sustainable dollars. But they are using their dollars they have now to force studios to not let networks stack their programming so their viewers can catch up. That I think is detrimental. That's a long-term detriment because if we can't make this show the strongest hit that it can be, then what's its afterlife? All the ancillary businesses are based on linear success. We run into this frustration all the time as marketers.... How insane is it for a consumer right now? Some shows are next day. Some are on eight-day delays. 30 days. Some are eight days on one platform and never on another platform. Authenticated, which is a terrible word by the way. You know, are you authenticated or are you not?

So as a man of titles, is there another word we should be using for "authenticated" besides TV Everywhere?

Yes, we have done a lot of exploration on it and we have a lot of suggestions. But we haven't cracked it. And it's really hard to fight something once everyone has come on board. We need to fix it though because what viewer wants to be authenticated?

To the point about making the most out of a show's first season, much has been made about Under the Dome on CBS, which was successful for CBS by many measures. Fox, too, is looking to do more original programming in the summer. CBS was able to do that show in part because they had the money from Amazon to fund the production. Now I also have heard people in the business say that in the long term that deal is not good for the health of that show. What do you think?

There are several ways to look at that deal when you see-especially for summer, when the risk is greater-a company figures out how to get into business and cover their downside. I completely understand that deal. It's very smart, particularly from a show standpoint and a deal standpoint. And it makes sense. Do you roll that out across your season? No. That's not what that's about. 

Will we see a deal like that for a Fox show?

It would all be on a case-by-case basis. The same thing as previewing a show, right? That was an experiment. That was controversial. Very, very successful for the launch of New Girl. Wasn't so successful for the second year. It comes up all the time. Are you gonna do it or not do it? We did it with Mindy this season. Would we ever do it again? Yes. Would we do it every time? No.

So, is that type of deal possible? ... I think that you have to be open to new models. You just need to be. The business is evolving. The business is challenged. And if you put your head in the sand, insist on doing it the way it's always been done, that's for sure not going to work.

So never say never?

Never say never, because it's definitely better to say 'no' a thousand times and 'yes' once than to say 'never' and not even be open to it. I think you definitely have to look at short term vs. long term. And you do need to be careful about setting precedents, because once it happens, your experimental partner is going to want that again. Or similar VOD partners are going to want them. ... No one has a crystal ball. So how do you know if you are finding the next new thing or are you creating a problem for yourself? I never criticize anyone for trying because we all have to keep doing that.

Let's talk about the perception in the press about network television. What is network television's place in the TV landscape and where is it going?

Network is not the shiny new object. The shiny new object usually gets a disproportionately large amount of coverage, understandably so. It's new. It's different. And you also have the David and Goliath story and people want to take down the incumbent and celebrate the success of the upstarts.

All totally understandable even from a storytelling standpoint. That's why reporters like that story. So Fox enjoyed being the upstart because up against the three 50- to 70-year-old networks Fox comes in as the upstart. ... We enjoyed being the guys having American Idol, being the No. 1 show on television. I remember being at the network winning our first sweep. Just winning a sweep back when sweeps mattered. The sweep was huge. Peter Chernin came and gave us all brooms to commemorate it, which I still have.

That's how they measured back then. Any success like that mattered. ...There are new incumbents now, I begrudge no one their moment in the sun even when American Idol, knowing it couldn't stay No. 1 forever. The press had been waiting to write the story of the fall of American Idol for 12 years, you know, and a couple of times it looked like it was going down and they thought they were going to get to write their story and it came back up. And so by the time that it happened when people were surprised about why is there so much press about it-because it's been a story waiting to be told for so long. There's a new upstart now.

And you would consider that Netflix?

For Idol it would be The Voice. But for networks it would be Netflix. There were a lot of frustrated writers who were hoping to write about Netflix sweeping the Emmys. And you know every time they lost a category there were writers going, 'Aaah. What's my story going to be about?' ....Netflix is going to get lots of stories. They're going to. They're new. They're challengers. They choose not to release data that would allow people to take away from them their success. You know, they are defining what their success is. I would say as a marketer and former PR person I'd say, 'smart move.' They define what their success is and it might frustrate people but that's the only measure they have. Right now their success is critical acclaim and whether or not they are happy with it.

I think broadcast right now has moved to the background in terms of newsworthiness because the good story is about the upstart. It's about cable taking over network. And now Netflix overtaking it. What will happen next with Amazon? Will it survive and all of that?

But I think what will happen inevitably is storytelling is storytelling and people like a comeback. So when CBS has Under the Dome open in the summer, which had been seeded to cable, oh it's a story again. 'Oh. Yes. A network made it.' When Sleepy Hollow opened, we see people pulling for you and saying, 'oh this is great.' People want to watch television again. And it'll be cyclical.

So when Netflix has something the critics don't like or they do start to have some ratings success and then they have one that's not a ratings success and they still have to share it, it'll all work itself out. Somebody else will be the new upstart.

Do you foresee a comeback for network television?

Oh yes; actually, I see that network television is alive and well.