Mel's Diner: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry… - Broadcasting & Cable

Mel's Diner: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry…

David Madden, Fox’s new entertainment chief, on the comedy and drama of a diverse career and the moment he was offered one of TV’s most intense gigs
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THE DISH: Things have come full circle for David Madden right here at a favorite breakfast place, John O’Groats. The understated restaurant that Madden likes because “it’s casual and coffee shop-ish,” and “gives the day a start of energy that’s different than a more formal place,” is an old neighborhood haunt of Madden and his wife, producer Marci Pool—their family used to live in nearby Cheviot Hills. It’s also mere blocks from the Fox lot, where Madden’s new office overlooks the building in which he began his career as a 23-year-old feature script reader.

From “grinding out coverage” in a little office, Madden, the former Fox TV Studios president who in August was named entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting, went on to produce more than 20 films in a range of genres. And as he takes on leadership of all genres at the Fox network, he recalls a time in his film career when he experienced “one of the great opportunities of the entertainment business,” which is “to do things that work in very different ways and be gratified by both of them.”

As a studio executive at Paramount, there was a period when he oversaw the simultaneous production of two disparate films. One was Children of a Lesser God, shot at a real school for the deaf off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, where “an incredibly beautiful and meaningful story” was being told. From there, he’d fly back to L.A., to shoot “totally ridiculous and silly” comedy, The Naked Gun.

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“If I was only doing one of those two things, it would have been probably a much more arduous experience, but the balance of being able to work on something that was deep and trying to be profound and something else that was just trying to be really fun and entertaining, that was fantastic,” Madden says.

The role of a broadcast network entertainment president could certainly be considered arduous, especially so for Fox at the moment. So far this season, the net—which finishe second in the adults 18-49 demo last season— has averaged a 2.2 rating so far, putting it in fourth among the Big Four broadcasters. With the exception of Gotham, none of Fox’s new offerings have caught on and last year’s rookie success, Sleepy Hollow, has struggled.

In his fi rst in-depth interview since taking the reins of Fox Entertainment, Madden discussed the task of taking it all on so far, the future of pilot season and the moment he realized Fox TV Group chairmen-CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden were offering him the job. Highlights of the conversation follow.

Describe your first seven weeks on the job.

The fastest description: It has been a nonstop adrenaline rush. I was very busy at my other job, but this job operates with a speed and an intensity that I didn’t really expect. I sort of knew it from afar. It is a different thing to estimate it from afar than to experience it first-hand.… It’s been truly a tremendously consuming job [having started during pitch season]. Adding onto that, launching all the shows, trying to get involved in all of the shows, dramas, comedies and reality shows that we’re doing. It’s been so immersive. Plus trying to get to know all the people…and trying to plug into what Dana and Gary need me to do and the role that I need to play. With all those things to do, it’s been like a breathless sprint. And I’m looking forward to a pause, somewhere around Christmas, but so far, still sprinting.

The development process is a big burning question throughout the industry. Former Fox Broadcasting entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly was so passionate and vocal about changing the process when he was at Fox. How do you see it? Do you see it like he sees it? What’s your approach?

My approach will be evolutionary because I feel like until I understand how it’s being done, it’s silly for me to try to change how it’s done. That said, I think there are some things that I quite like. One thing that he instituted was the combination of the development department and the current department. I’ve thus far kept that in place. I know some people said that’s not a good idea. I like that idea.

In a smaller company like Fox TV Studios, we were able to not have a current department and to essentially have the development executives be the executives throughout the life of a show. We’re currently maintaining that philosophy. I like the idea that the people who were involved at the beginning, who were present at the creation of a show, who were part of the establishment of that show’s DNA, that they can live with the show all the way through and continue to have a perspective on that show. Like a parent.

Like a parent.

I don’t like the whole, OK, this child’s been raised until he or she was two and then goes off to be adopted by somebody else. However, that puts a lot more work on the [executives]. The cost of deeper involvement is perhaps lesser efficiency. So I have to weigh that. I think as we get through this season, we’ll weigh whether that was the right philosophy or not. But I like that idea and I want to see if that works. [Editor’s note: Marking the first exec shakeup since Madden’s arrival, last week Fox announced a reorganization of the eventseries department that will see execs Shana C. Waterman and Jeni Mulein departing.]

This has been said in the past: Kevin, when he said that pilot season is over, I don’t think he actually meant that. I think that his point, which was a good point, is that we shouldn’t be absolutely wedded to that calendar. We should be doing other experiments outside of that calendar. And that we actually are doing.

My guess is that this year, the lion’s share of what we actually produce will be within the pilot calendar. And we’ll look for opportunities to go outside it, but there’s so much stuff that’s in the pipeline that will happen in that cycle. So I think we’ll just look for opportunities in both directions.

How did you end up in this job? Is it something that you had thought about doing? You’ve done a lot of things. You’ve worked in film, in television on the studio side for some time.

I didn’t think about it at all. This truly, and this probably will sound to you like something somebody says to the press, but it really came out of the blue. I had not long before, months earlier, done a new deal to stay at FTVS.

And you had been at FTVS for 14 years, right? Four as the president?

Yes, exactly. So that’s what I thought I was doing. And I was totally OK with that. I loved FTVS. I loved the people there. I have a lot of good friends that are still there. I had a lot of shows that I love there. There was a part of me that was, ‘OK, 14 years is a long time to be somewhere.’ I had a little kind of ‘Is that all there is?’ feeling. But still content.

Then sometime in August, I went to New York to be on the set for the last two days of shooting of White Collar, which is a show that we’ve done for six years. So I was there and said good-bye to everybody and it was very sentimental and it was very much about the closing of the chapter. And not that long prior, I had been at the last day of shooting of The Killing, which is another show we’ve done for a long time. So I flew back from New York feeling a little bit like, ‘Well those shows have ended and Burn Notice had ended. And so that’s the end of something.’ The next day, I had lunch with Dana and Gary in their conference room.

So this was after Kevin announced he was leaving—and Dana and Gary had gotten their current positions?

They had been announced, they were going over [to the network] and there were a lot of rumors. At least for me, while I had heard a lot of rumors about who might be going over to the network, I wasn’t in any of them. There was no rumor around me.

Did you think, maybe that would be interesting ?

No! Because honestly, like I said, never worked in broadcast, never worked at a network. There were other people who are, say, currently at [20th Century Fox Television] who had worked in broadcast, who had had certainly more experience at a network than I have or even outside people. So it didn’t offend me, I just didn’t think that would be something anyone would think of me for. I would think to myself, ‘If such and such person goes, what are the dominoes of that—would that affect me?’ I had that much sense of scenario in my head, but nothing that would involve me directly.

So I go to have this lunch, and we small talked for 10 minutes. And then after 10 minutes, Dana turns to Gary and says, ‘You go.’ And Gary starts talking about FBC and what’s working and what’s not working. And I’m listening to him, and I’m kind of saying ‘Well, why are you telling me this?’ It actually took me longer than you’d expect to understand that he was actually asking me to come. Because he didn’t start with that, he just started talking about the network in theory. And I was just waiting and I realized finally that he’s asking me to come.

Half of me is saying, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting. That could be different and fun.’ And half of me is saying, ‘Why the hell are they asking me? I’m not qualified for this job. And even the whole prospect of it is terrifying.’ And as all of this is happening in my brain really fast, I’m listening to what Gary is saying and Dana is chiming in a little bit. And so they keep talking and then they kind of look at me expectantly like what is my reaction.

Did they say the words, ‘We would like you to come over?’

Probably. I mean, honestly, my mind is reeling so much that I’m not exactly sure what they said. I think I babbled something out, trying to get them to articulate those words, which they did. And as my brain is still trying to wrap my mind around this, I hear my mouth saying, ‘Well, I’m definitely interested.’ Which my brain hadn’t said to itself yet, but my mouth said it. Which was interesting. And as I thought about it, I thought that while I’m sitting there and I left them and I called my wife.

What did Marci say?

She was excited. She seemed less surprised than I was, although she never really said to me, ‘I think they’re going to ask you to come to the network.’ But she then, because she’s smarter than I am, she seemed to be not thrown by it. But as I thought about it and I realized how kind of terrified I was by the whole prospect of going, under the theory that the things that scare you are the things that you should actually do, I realized my fear was a good thing.

So we made a deal in a week, which in corporate time is like nothing. Nothing gets done in a week like that. And I think that Dana and Gary—and I’m not saying this just because you are recording this—they’ve always been incredibly kind to me. When [Madden’s predecessor at Fox TV Studios] Emiliano [Calemzuk ] left in 2010, and he told them that he was leaving, by the time he had gotten back to the office to tell us that he was leaving, Dana and Gary were already on the phone asking me to replace him. They’ve always been incredibly supportive in ways that were beyond any expectation I had.

When I’ve been working with them over at FTVS, while I’ve reported to them for the last four years, given the nature of the TCFTV/ FTVS dynamic, it was fairly arm’s length. We would meet once a week and talk every now and then, but I didn’t have the same kind of relationship with them that I have with them now, the same kind of day-to-day interaction. So the fact that they would trust me with something that is as meaningful as this job at this network was this incredible compliment. And now I have to figure out if I deserve it or not.

To that point, how are you and Dana and Gary measuring your success?

One thing Dana said early, which I thought was very smart was, ‘If we come out of the season with one genuine hit, that would be great. Two would be nice. But if we get one, great.’ Well, too early to say but hopefully Gotham is that. [Editor’s note: Fox handed out a full season order to Gotham the day of this interview.] We also have a couple of shows coming out in the beginning of next year that we have high hopes for. If I could sit here and look at you in June and say, ‘Well, we had that hit,’ then I would feel OK.

It would not take me long to argue that this is the toughest time in the network business, particularly for the entertainment president job. What do you say to people who ask, ‘Why are you so energized by this—this is such a tough time?’

It is a tough time and I’m not trying to act ignorant of the business challenges, as well as the creative challenges of a job like this. I think it’s a tough time if you’re a cable network. It’s a tough time if you’re a studio president. There were a lot of big challenges at FTVS. There are always difficulties and clearly every broadcast network is facing a challenge of how do you monetize your shows and how do your views get counted when they’re not in a linear fashion? All of that is true. And I’m not meaning to act naive or Polly Anna-ish about the problems that the network is facing. But for me, the opportunity to make things for a big, broad audience and to try things and to see what will succeed or not succeed, that’s an incredible gift. I don’t know if I’ll stay in the job a year or 10 years. Most people don’t last in these jobs very long. I know I’m very grateful to have the opportunity. I’m going to enjoy it as long as I get to do it. How long I get to do it is not going to be up to me. But I feel like, because I have Dana and Gary overseeing me and supporting me, I’m doing it as protected and as nurturing a way as anybody could ever get to do these jobs. And we’ll see how long it lasts.

How are you managing the “breathless sprint” and intensity of the new job you described so far physically? Mentally? How do you prepare yourself?

I do find it fun. So that part is stimulating. If I was working at this speed and hating it, I don’t know what I would do. I think energy creates energy, so because I’m stimulated, because I like the people, because I like the process, I’m meeting whole swaths of people I’ve never met before and I think adrenaline feeds on adrenaline.

The first few weekends when I started, I felt like I was back in grad school…because I was trying so hard to catch up on all the episodes of shows, a few of which I watched, most of which I didn’t watch. I had to get up to speed with all the reading I had to do. But I loved that I’m exercising my brain in different ways. The fact that I’m having fun is what makes it actually not just tolerable but pleasurable.

In the grand scheme of your career, how would you place this job and this experience?

Without meaning to be a smartass, I’ll answer that better when I see how I do. But a more useful answer, I guess, would be, I have been a feature seller, a feature buyer, a television seller, there was one thing missing: Being a television buyer. And I actually think this job, if I’m able to do it at all well—big ‘if’—it combines all things that I’ve done before. I’ve been deeply inside the making of shows, both as a producer and as a studio executive. But I’ve also, both in FTVS and even starting as an executive in the feature business, I’ve been very involved in the business side of the business. I think that you can’t be an effective creative person without understanding the business. And I think the reverse is true. So I think this job combines all of those qualities. It puts them under one job title. So I feel like if I could pull this off without embarrassing myself, then this would be a great culmination of all the things I’ve done in my career.

What from your success and experience producing primarily for basic cable at FTVS can you apply to the broadcast world?

I think there are two ways to try to answer that. One is in terms of content and one is in terms of style.

One thing Dana and Gary and I talked a lot about and we agree on wholeheartedly, is that we need to be incredibly writer-supportive and very attentive and thoughtful about the way we give notes. One of the things that I think people frequently say about broadcast is that the notes process can be so hectic and so complicated that it’s difficult for writers. Certainly I tried at FTVS to create a culture where we wouldn’t note people to death. The notes we would give would be useful, but not micro-managerial, where writers would feel like they were heard, that they’re being pushed in directions they can understand and that whether or not something got made that the experience would be an experience that they would want to replicate. That they would want to come back. It’s really important for me to establish that culture at FBC. And I’m not saying that culture wasn’t there previously—

That’s a signature that you want?

Yeah, and I want to be in the meetings. I want to do all the reading. I want to do the work. I don’t want to be one of those people who waits until the scripts come in as finished scripts and then reads them and then gives notes and then completely reroutes the entire development process. That’s why I want to read all the story documents. That’s why I want to read all the outlines....I don’t want to be the guy who comes in last and messes up everything that’s been in process over the entire development flow. I want to be able to steer right at the beginning, here’s what I think is going to make this a more appealing show for the network, for Dana and Gary, for me. And that means I have to do the work.

I think that at FTVS, which was a smaller company, I was able to read every draft and watch every cut and I’m determined to try to do that in this job. I may fail. I may let some things slide. But I think there is no substitute for doing the reading and doing the work. That’s the only way you’re going to have an opinion. That’s the only way to incorporate your opinion into the process in a timely way and in a constructive way.

Stylistically, the glib phrase I’ve tended to use—and it’s slightly bull----ty—is I want to give writers a cable experience for a broadcast network. I think writers tend to feel that with cable, they get a great experience—less money, but a great experience. Broadcast, they get big money, s---ty experience. It shouldn’t be impossible to have both a good experience and actually be well paid. So that’s I think a stylistic approach.

A style of working.

Style of working. Style of interacting with talent. Interacting with writers.

I think [that’s] one thing that will be particularly useful or particularly applicable when we’re doing things with our home studio, 20th Century Fox Television, and we’re working hard to make sure that we’re giving notes in  with them at all times.

But even with outside studios, we work really hard to try to make sure that, whether it’s Peter Roth with Warner Bros. or Patrick Moran at ABC or whoever, that we’re close to them on the projects that we’re working with and we’re trying to speak with one voice and writers feel like, ‘I’m not getting 19 different sets of notes from 19 different points of view that I can’t possibly integrate.’

Content wise, I feel differently.

So in terms of content?

I think that in the years I have been in cable, one thing we’ve all watched is that everybody in cable is moving to the darker, the edgier; everybody wants to chase Breaking Bad or True Detective. Those are the shows that people emulate. Even networks that were built to be lighter networks in the cable world have HBO envy or FX or AMC envy. So that entire space which used to have fairly wide spectrum of tones has become increasingly grim.

When I got to FBC and as Dana and Gary and I have talked, and we’ve talked a lot about what kinds of things we should be doing, we all felt that it was pointless for us to try and chase cable. We couldn’t. FBC has had an interesting history. When FBC started, it could successfully establish an identity as the edgy network. We’re going to do Married With Children. We’re going to do things that are tonally bold and daring, especially compared to CBS and NBC and ABC at that time. And that was its identity. And then somewhere in the mid-’90s, American Idol happened. And then American Idol because of the behemoth as that was, changed the tone. American Idol was not edgy. It was fantastic, but it was not edgy…So the network then became a little bit muddier in terms of its identity. Like some shows were edgier, some were not. We aren’t going to cancel American Idol simply to get a cleaner identity. Now we live in a universe where Idol is still very strong but it’s not the juggernaut that it was.

And we look at, what is the identity of Fox today? Well, it really can’t be what it was in the ‘90s. It can’t be the edgy, daring network because since that time, now there’s HBO. Now there’s cable in general. Now there’s Netflix and Amazon. For FBC to go back and be the daring network that it was perceived to be at one point? You can’t do that. Perhaps it could be daring relative to the broadcast networks in a certain respect. But it can’t be what Netflix would do.

So I think for us to chase cable tonally and spiritually doesn’t make sense. But what I do think makes sense is that given where cable is going there’s a hole that we can fill. And that is for us to try and do shows, for example, in drama that are smart and layered and thematic, which is all true of cable, but also fun and also entertaining and shows that have a sense of play and a sense of humor.

A number of the shows are like that right now.

I think Gotham is a really good example. Not a show that we developed but a show that we inherited, but it’s a great example of a show that is really entertaining and you can watch it on a lot of different levels. It’s really fun. And it’s easy to point to a show that works, so I’ll take that.

I think that House is a great example of a kind of a show that we’ve done and we should continue to try to do. There’s some place where House embraced a lot of darkness and the level of that character but also he was incredibly funny. The medical side of the show was very satisfying. It had a balance of things.

Somewhere between the very traditional shows at CBS and the very outlandish shows of the most adventurous of cable, there is a middle ground which can still be very modern and very thoughtful, but not do that to the point where you’re violating people’s sense of having a good time watching a television show. You don’t feel like you’re wallowing in an emotional abyss for an hour. That you can actually get them pleasure out of the experience. So that’s I think the heart of what we’re trying to get.

You point to Gotham and House as good examples of that. On the comedy side, is there anything to point to that fits what you hope to do?

Obviously the animated comedies are spectacular and they have a durability that is staggering. That is a whole separate thing. No one needs me to fix Family Guy and Simpsons. They work very well.

But I think on the live action comedy side, I think Brooklyn [Nine-Nine] is a really funny show. I think New Girl and Mindy [Project] are very funny shows. What I think has been sort of the case in some of the comedies that have been tried at FBC in the past is that they’ve been a little glib and a little bit too focused purely on jokes and not enough about heart. And one thing that we’ve talked a lot about this year as we’ve focused on our comedy development is trying to make sure that the comedies have a genuine emotional base to them.

Dana and Gary obviously had such tremendous success with Modern Family and while that’s an impossible show to emulate, it’s a very specific show and it’s dazzlingly well done, I think you don’t have to just look at Modern Family. You can go back through the whole history of television comedy. And the comedies that last and the comedies that endure are comedies where the relationships and characters are what you remember. And I think sometimes the comedies get too focused just on being wittier than thou.

In general or on Fox?

In general. Look, I am old fashioned. I think you can learn most of what you need to know about television comedy by studying I Love Lucy. I think that was the show that defined the best half-hour comedy work. Still does. This is my own little theory on the side, I think one reason among many that Modern Family works so well is that essentially Modern Family has three Lucys and three Rickys. And if you look at all three of those couples, Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara are all Lucys who are troublesome and meddling and over the top. And their counterparts are all sort of the, ‘Oh my God, what do I do with my crazy spouse?’ But ultimately those characters love each other. And for a generation that needs more than one thing to be happy at a time, Modern Family triples the Lucy formula. I think there are things that you can learn from that.

And each of those three couples, each of the other two play Fred and Ethel to the third one. They all have a sort of Fred and Ethel, ‘Oh my god, Lucy, what are you doing?’ reaction to events that the principal couple at the time take place in. It’s very kind of intricately structured. I have no idea if they ever talked about I Love Lucy or not.

And ultimately, Lucy doesn’t have to be female in the scenario.

No. Ty Burrell, not only Eric Stonestreet, but even Ty Burrell is the Lucy of those relationships. It’s a little more complicated than what I just said. But that’s what I feel.…The teams I’ve now begun to work with are very smart people who had a lot of smart thoughts regardless of my input. But if I try to focus on anything in the comedy area, it is trying to make sure that it’s not just about, ‘Oh, that’s really funny,’ but ‘Oh, here’s an interesting set of relationships that actually can spawn a lot of story and I can’t wait to come back to see how this character and that character are going to connect in such and such situation.’ That’s been my comedy philosophy.

What are the some of the things you try to keep in mind as a leader? Especially leading a new team?

When I was running FTVS, I had three people—Nancy Cotton, Matt Loze and Pancho Mansfield—who were my three senior creative VPs, all of whom had more time in television, had more experience in television, were grownups and were easily as capable if not more capable of running the company than I was. So I’ve always leaned very hard on people who I thought of as peers and while I was the president of that company as I’m the president of this company, I don’t know everything. Certainly in the case of this job, there’s a lot that they know that I don’t know.

I am very opinionated. I have a lot of confidence in my opinion, but I also recognize that other people are frequently smarter than I am or may have better ideas than I have. So I think that the best way of leading in this job is A: to respect the people I work with, whether they have big titles or small titles. I think I’ve discovered that a lot of the most junior people at FBC sometimes have the most inspired ideas. B: I have to do the work. I can’t be lazy. I have to read everything the drama group reads. I have to read everything the comedy group reads. I have to watch everything the reality group watches. And C: I have to be very close with Dana and Gary. I have to make sure that what I’m feeling syncs up with their larger vision and their overall vision for where the network needs to go. And to be able to translate what the departments are feeling to them and what they’re feeling back to the departments. And D: I am really excited and enthusiastic about what I’m doing and I need to make that something that they feel and believe. I’m not burned out. I’m not cynical. I’m not like, OK, well, this is the last whistle stop on a long train ride. To me, this is great fun. And that’s my genuine emotion about it and I need to be able to communicate to other people and make them feel energized like, ‘Oh, OK. He’s having fun. Maybe I can have fun too.’

THE DISH: Things have come full circle for David Madden right here at a favorite breakfast place, John O’Groats. The understated restaurant that Madden likes because “it’s casual and coffee shop-ish,” and “gives the day a start of energy that’s different than a more formal place,” is an old neighborhood haunt of Madden and his wife, producer Marci Pool—their family used to live in nearby Cheviot Hills. It’s also mere blocks from the Fox lot, where Madden’s new office overlooks the building in which he began his career as a 23-year-old feature script reader.

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