Dana Walden: Looking for Success Beyond Her 'Homeland'

Dana Walden on how News Corp.’s television studio is trying to build hits anywhere and everywhere it can
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20th Century Fox Television is on a roll. With fresh hits like New Girl on Fox, American Horror Story on FX and Homeland on Showtime, the studio is hardly resting on its Modern Family laurels. But like any studio chiefs, there are plenty of challenges facing chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman in a media environment that just won't sit still. As she prepares to headline the B&C "Keynotes & Cocktails: Women of Hollywood" event Nov. 15 in Los Angeles, Walden spoke to B&C executive editor Melissa Grego about whether the dinosaurs are once again facing extinction, what her shop's plans are for Netflix and why she is bullish -- yes, bullish -- on NBC. An edited transcript follows.

What stands out to you and to Gary as the story of the fall?

I think the story is a hugely optimistic story about our business. You see virtually every network has some great story to tell about what's going on with primetime entertainment.

We're seeing a lot of talk about the wonderful reception that some female-led comedies, and comedy in general, has gotten. You've seen cycles in primetime before. Do you see this as a trend?

It's only a trend because as an industry, unfortunately, we tend to try to chase our successes. So I think it's only going to be a trend because we're going to try and replicate the success we've had with these shows. I think what is most telling about the season is the success that all of us have been experiencing with comedy, not necessarily female-driven comedy.

With Terra Nova, do you have to fight the perception that because something takes longer, there's something wrong as opposed to you're making something right?

I'm sure that everyone's heard the cliché: good, cheap and fast. You can have two of those three. [With] Terra Nova, I feel we were scrutinized more because of the rumored budget and about the time it took to prepare it. I think that everyone had a pretty keen awareness of the fact that special effects take a certain amount of time to deliver. And we weren't going to put that show on the air with Barney the Dinosaur. We needed to make sure that the special effects we were delivering in that show lived up to the names of the participants involved and lived up to the commitment that we received from the network.

What's the timetable as far as an order for the second season, or continued seasons?

I hope we'll be having that conversation over the next [few days]. It does take a lot of planning, and we will have to know pretty quickly. We want to make sure we have the number of writers necessary, and that we can be prepared to go back into production in a faraway location. And we just want to make sure there is the appropriate time to deliver the show we've been delivering.

Do you feel pretty good about the chances of bringing it back?

I do. I think they are very strong. You look at the way it's performing, in particular the way the live plus 3 and live plus 7 numbers jumped dramatically. There are a lot of people who are very invested in that series.

What would the smart creator be pitching you right now?

I like to never limit the possibility of ideas that are going to come into the doors of the studio. I always found it to be somewhat bizarre when executives would say, "We don't want to do law shows this year," or "This year we feel like there are too many ensemble comedies, so we don't want to hear any," because one thing is for certain: If you make that proclamation, that's the year someone else is going to develop New Girl. So I like to be open-minded about it.

We're starting to hear chatter about more cable networks targeting comedy. Are you seeing the same thing?

Absolutely. You know, the trick is—and it is not so different from network television— it is building a financial scale which makes sense for those platforms. It's a constant challenge, and one that I know can be frustrating to some of our executives, where at the big studio there's much greater flexibility in terms of how to make something work financially.

Have you been talking with folks like Netflix or Hulu about developing straight to them?

We've absolutely had conversations with Netflix, and we have an ongoing relationship with Hulu, so we've absolutely discussed the different opportunities that exist. We just have to ! nd the opportunities that make sense for both companies.

When do you generally see that happening?

Certainly with Netflix, we've had very active conversations about potentially doing something in the near future.

What would be the advantage to that over any network or outlet?

It isn't that one opportunity outweighs the other. It is that we're in a very dynamic business. People are consuming our content in a variety of different ways, and it is critical for a company like ours to be evolving and to explore opportunities with all of these platforms and to remain thoughtful so that there's not just one form of programming that we are capable of producing. So to the extent that there are opportunities out there, we are going to pursue them. We're going to experiment with them. I would have to say that in the near future, we will probably be in partnership with a company like that.

What do you mean by near future?

For sure within the next six months. We're actively discussing various opportunities.

What's your take on American Horror Story?

It makes me very regretful, you know, [executive producer] Ryan [Murphy] and I are such close friends now and I disclosed to him in the past my deep terror of a home invasion and you can't tell him anything you're afraid of or he'll write it into the show. And there it is for you to see, the thing that you are most terrified of in one of your shows.

Is there anything you're doing in particular to continue to expand your client base outside of FBC [Fox Broadcasting Co.]?

I think that probably in terms of what our story is this year as a studio, it would have to be cable programming. It was clearly a priority of ours to become more active producers for cable.

Time Warner just put in a bid for Endemol, which many people see as an attempt to expand their international presence. Is that something that you see yourself doing?

Never say never within News Corp. We certainly are in a corporate environment where that sort of risk-taking is encouraged. And if there was an opportunity that felt exactly right, we would certainly be knocking on [Chase Carey's] door to discuss the merits. As you well know, this company recently acquired Shine. And Shine is actually doing a tremendous business in the reality market around the world. And I think that's been a very nice complement to the type of programming that this company does and at FTVS and at Fox 21. So even to the extent that we were looking in a big way toward reality, which we are certainly at Fox 21, we've had a big push in the reality area. We would look to Shine now as our partner in terms of format.

So you don't really need an Endemol if you have Shine.

Not really, we have Shine.

Do you see the struggles that NBC has had as an opportunity, or are you somewhat leery of selling to them because they have a weaker launch platform?

We're definitely not leery since we've set up a number of very big projects. There are a variety of reasons that company is particularly appealing to us right now as developers and programmers. First and foremost, it's being run by Bob Greenblatt, someone that we have enormous respect for. I just think he's a phenomenal executive.

Then you've got [NBC entertainment chief] Jennifer Salke, and there's really almost no one who understands what our brand as a studio is as well as Jen. She was part of creating what our brand is and I trust her creatively. And our writers have phenomenal relationships with her.

I believe as we can deliver to them the right show, I think they can launch it. I trust they will be able to launch it. I saw what they did with The Voice. The Voice will give them an enormous platform come midseason, and as we discussed before, it takes one show. It has to be the right show, but I think they have incredible taste as developers and programmers and I think they'll get there.

It's an open secret in the business that you and Gary made a decision to let Salke out of her deal so that she could go and take that job. Why?

Gary and I did not spend a long time deliberating on what we were going to do with Jennifer. We decided very early on that there was no way we would stand in the way of her taking an incredible opportunity like becoming the president of entertainment for NBC. We had just a phenomenal partnership at this company for a long time. But it was [time] for her to step out from under Gary and my shadow and run something on her own. She would have felt frustrated, staying in a position that she had outgrown.

I guess it doesn't hurt to have that relationship at a big, huge buyer either, right?

That's true. We're very close with [ABC entertainment president] Paul Lee. [CBS entertainment president] Nina [Tassler] and Gary and I have been working together for many, many, many years. And the relationship at FBC has really never been stronger. This was more about doing the right thing for ourselves and for the business. Strength at NBC is a good thing for our company.

Do you see any potential gamechangers in midseason?

Absolutely. I think Touch is going to be a very big asset for FBC. Without just looking at our own opportunities, which, again, I think we have a few shows that are being held for midseason, including Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23.

I think networks are very wisely holding back some of their noisier, more breakthrough projects for midseason, where they can get shows that they have a lot of faith out of that cluster of premieres in fall where viewers are just bombarded with so much messaging that it's very difficult to break through.

Midseason offers a genuine opportunity to launch something that takes a little bit of effort in terms of sending a message or trying to describe what the show is. And I think each of the networks, as you look at what they've held back for midseason, they're all holding that special piece.

When I look at Smash for NBC as well, they exhibited patience because the tendency is just to want to launch your best stuff in fall and get it out as quickly as possible and try and see quick returns on your bet. The wiser approach though is to hold a show like that, make sure creatively it's exactly where it needs to be. It's not so different from Glee. That first season of Glee, we were given much longer than we typically have for launching a fall show because it was an incredible high-wire act. Smash is the same; I feel similarly about Touch, but all of these networks for the most part have done a great job of launching and nurturing reality shows that can serve as platforms for those more distinctive scripted shows.

Some people argue that it's more a matter of supply and demand. [West coast editor for NYMag's Vulture] Joe Adalian wrote something a few weeks ago to that point. Do you think there is merit to that?

You know what? I think it's a combination of things. And by the way, if any of us knew the exact equation here, we would control all distribution platforms and there would be no need for anyone else to try. This is all speculation and all of us have just our experience as programmers and suppliers to look back on as we kind of pontificate about why now and why the success in this genre right now. I personally think that what happens in this cycle is that a form of storytelling becomes oversaturated and the audience tires of it and because so much of it is being made, the quality is diminished and so a genre needs to go away a little bit for the cream to rise back to the top. For so long now, networks have been less interested in comedy. There have been less time periods available for comedy. People were burned out on the storytelling form.

So to get those time periods, the shows that are trailblazing - the Modern Familys, Big Bang and now this next generation of comedy that's coming up very quickly behind it. They've had to be better than an ordinary topical comedy, because it was not as popular a form. So to win those time periods, you had people really being competitive, telling the stories that they feel most passionately about. There were a lot of really talented comedy writers who didn't have a lot of opportunity for a while, who all dug deep and came up with the best possible stories that they had to tell.

Why weren't the opportunities there? Just that nobody wanted to bet on half-hours because they hadn't been working?

Well, yes. I think that, again, there was a point where the marketplace was so saturated and the quality was not great. And it was a lot of derivative development, derivative programming trying to chase the success of Friends, so it was a lot of youth ensemble comedies or you know, trying to find that big point-of-view standup comedian to build a show around. We're at a certain point: you can't build Cosby or Home Improvement with a 25-year-old standup. But you know, that's sort of what was happening because people were just desperate to try to get in the game and the quality suffered and when the quality suffers for too long, it has a very negative impact on the viewer and they will turn away from an entire genre of television.

You do hear people saying, "Yeah, I just don't watch comedy anymore," or, "It's all the same thing."

That's exactly right. And that is a function of season after season having networks somewhat fraudulently trying to advertise the next great comedy to their consumers and when that relationship spins long enough in a sort of dishonest way, one member of the relationship leaves. And the viewers left.

And it took a show like Modern Family. I have so much respect for ABC and I truly applaud the way they marketed that show because it had so much to do with their relationship with their viewers. They were 100% committed to communicating one message and that was: We have one show that you must watch. Forget about everything else on our schedule for one minute and check this show out and it was incredibly potent. It was very successful and from one show, as you see with the success that Paul and ABC are having this year - gets to the build the network back one show at a time and that's what they did.

How do you feel about how your shows were marketed and how things this past season were marketed in general?

This was a year - you know, you're exactly right. You can't plan for it. That goes back to the, if anyone knew exactly what the formula was, they would have wild success and then have less people try. You know, this year like many years - I mean, I find more times than not there will be a standout pilot each year that one of the networks manages to develop and there are a variety of other circumstances that existed that prevent or make it less appealing to get behind that show.

For a long time, we dealt with vertical integration where networks were not only trying to get that one show, but they also wanted that one show to be self-supplied. And it just takes a very narrow bull's-eye and makes it impossibly small and impossible to hit and again that goes back to that somewhat fraudulent messaging from a network to their viewer of "not 100% sure this is the best show for you to be watching, but it's meaningful to us financially, so please do."

You know, this year is a very good example though, really, of an embarrassment of riches. I mean from shows which are not ours - 2 Broke Girls, Once Upon a Time to Suburgatory to really several different incredible bright spots on various network schedules that our shows were, I felt - listen, as a supplier, you have to be pretty honest with yourself at various points throughout the development process and as you're making these first year shows, they want to drain all of the resources of your company. They're hard, and finding the great prototype that you can then replicate 22 times a year. It's enormously challenging, but we try to have a degree of honesty internally about, "What are our best shots? Where are our resources best utilized?" And all shows are really not created equal. There are some opportunities that we look at and say, "We've got to double down on that show." And there are some opportunities where we say, "We're going to do the best that we can," but it was given - whatever show was given a less than desirable time period and we really need to focus the majority of our resources on the better shot.

This year we had an embarrassment of riches, honestly, between Terra Nova and New Girl and Homeland and American Horror and our returning shows. When you look at a show like How I Met Your Mother, which is reaching these extraordinary heights in its seventh season, it takes a lot of honesty within an organization about where to continue to focus your resources. I felt like every company this year had a lot of reasons to celebrate and a lot of well-placed priorities.

Speaking of Terra Nova and New Girl, how do you feel about the difference in the way two shows were marketed? New Girl certainly didn't have the same push as Terra Nova or The X Factor, but it is outpacing the others in terms of ratings.

I feel like New Girl did have a very sizable launch. Not only was it a financially meaningful launch, but you could tell that it was a show that seeped into the culture of that network. When you talked to the executives, they would all be talking about the pilot or how much they enjoyed the second script. I could tell when I talked to Joe Earley, who loved the pilot, that we were going to get a very formidable launch.

So while Terra Nova and X Factor have maybe more purely broad campaigns, the campaign for New Girl was extremely smart and the network went above and beyond in terms of their effort in launching it. I did not find New Girl's success to be surprising given the show I knew we were delivering and the way the network got out in front of it.

With X Factor and Terra Nova - I'll just speak for Terra Nova since it's our show - Terra Nova I consider to be a huge success. It's an enormously difficult show to produce. It was a huge endeavor for this company. It's bringing in a sizable audience at 8 p.m., starting the night for FBC. It's an alternative - as we develop every year, as we sit around, as we come back from the upfronts and we talk about you know, what are our priorities going into the next development season, they always begin with, "What is not on the air?" How can you be bold and distinctive in a business - and again, there is sort of a gravitational pull to derivative behavior. How can you avoid that? Terra Nova was for us a big, bold original swing. A show that appeals to family and families in a marketplace which wants to be more targeted. How can you send a message to the broadest possible group of people that this is a show that families can watch in one room together? It was meaningful to all of us, to our parents of this company.

So we're happy with Terra Nova; we're happy with the way it's performing. But New Girl is particularly satisfying because we all love it so much.

What have you learn from Terra Nova that you can apply to other big, long lead projects you're developing, like Flintstones or Cosmos?

Every project is so different. It's hard really to take what we've learned from Terra Nova and apply it to anything else, because I doubt we will ever do another show set in Australia that features dinosaurs, which was an enormous endeavor. But I guess, you know what, I'm extremely proud of Terra Nova because I feel like we delivered on the promise of what that show was designed to be, which was a big, action adventure with incredible special effects delivered on a weekly basis and the quality, I think, of the show is fantastic. What we've learned is sort of a lesson that that we've learned over and over again, which is the more time you have to plan, the more organized you are and the stronger a visionary you have at the center of the show, the greater your chances are of creating something meaningful and impactful and something that delivers on the promise of these big event shows.

E-mail comments to mgrego@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @MelissaGrego

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