Walden and Newman: Three Challenges for Fox Chiefs

New roles for studio veterans bring new obstacles
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Longtime studio heads Dana Walden and Gary Newman were named to the newly created posts of chairmen and CEOs of the Fox Television Group Monday, giving them oversight of Fox Broadcasting and continued control of 20th Century Fox Television. As Walden and Newman prepare to settle into their new roles, a host of challenges await. Among the biggest:

1. ‘Idol’: Fix it or Forget It

For the eight consecutive season that Fox finished first among the broadcasters in Nielsen 18-49 ratings, from 2004-05 to 2011-12, American Idol was the engine that powered the network, averaging a 12.4 live-plus-same day rating and 36.4 million viewers at its peak in 2006. Last season, the show averaged a 2.6 and 10.5 million viewers. The good news for Walden and Newman is that the show didn’t fade on their watch, but they now have to decide how many, if any, resources they want to devote to resuscitating it. Unspectacular ratings for ABC’s Rising Star and the somewhat more spectacular failure of Fox’s X Factor don’t say anything encouraging about viewers’ appetite for the music-competition genre. And former entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly already cutthe coming season’s order for the show from its traditional 50 hours to a leaner 37. But even 37 hours may be more than is good for the network at midseason, when the new chiefs will have the opportunity to tinker with programming and scheduling.

2. Saving Comedy From Tragedy

Fox is far from the only network struggling with comedy. The Big Four appear to be backing away from the genre, having collectively picked up 25% fewer comedies for the May upfronts than they did last season. “Niche” is a word that gets thrown around often when it comes to Fox comedies such as The Mindy ProjectBrooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl — the last of which is produced by 20th Century Fox Television and saw ratings for its season three finale decline 43% from the previous season’s finale. Fox will try to go broader with multi-camera Mulaney — which, like Mindy and Brooklyn comes from Universal Television — but critical buzz around the pilot has not been good. Midseason will see the arrival of high-concept single-cam The Last Man on Earth, also produced by Fox.

3. Keeping Their Eyes on the Ball

A worst-case scenario for Fox wouldn’t just be Walden and Newman failing to revive the network. It would be the studio slipping while they work to revive the network. During upfront season, 20th Century Fox Television sold eight broadcast series, and Fox 21 and Fox Television Studios fielded 19 cable series orders. The combined studios garnered 44 Emmy nominations last week, the second most of any studio operation, behind HBO. Their studio success is the reason that Walden and Newman are getting this job, on their terms (asked on a conference call Monday morning why she didn’t take over the network years ago when asked, Walden said she has “never been interested in working and being the president of a broadcast network that would force me to leave this studio, which Gary and I have spent the last 15 years building”). With business operations president Howard Kurtzman and creative affairs president Jonnie Davis expected to take on more responsibility for day-to-day studio operations, Walden and Newman must make sure that what they’ve built doesn’t suffer for the sake of their new project.

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