Pasadena, Calif.—Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden participated in their first TCA press tour executive session Saturday. As they outlined their goals for rebuilding Fox Broadcasting—which they gained oversight of in July, adding it to a sphere of influence that includes Fox’s studio operation—they talked about bringing several known franchises back to the network’s air. They also touted the early success of Empire, whose most recent episode was the highest-rated for a broadcast drama this season, and discussed their motivations for taking on the difficult task of turning around a broadcast network currently stuck in fourth place in the ratings.
Later in the day Newman spoke with B&C about scheduling strategy, comedy, and the risk and reward of limited series.
You and Dana talked a lot about successes from the network’s past—24, Simon Cowell, X-Files, Prison Break. Is that part of your strategy to rebuild, going into past successes and attempting to revitalize them?
Not really. It just happens to be the coincidence of timing. We over at the studio have been thinking about Prison Break for a long time. X-Files was something that was always attractive to us in terms of trying to get the gang back together; 24 was a big success. So people talked about doing them again. I think that’s going to be a relatively small part of what we’re doing, and all of those will be event series. They’ll be eight, 10 episodes, 12 episodes, whatever the number is. And we’ll be able to use them strategically in our schedule to maybe bridge periods between fall seasons and late midseasons. Maybe, if you have a big one, you start it off in the fall, use the benefit of the promotion of football to do what feels like a big event. But primarily what we’re going to be spending our time on is new programming.
In event series, you had one with Gracepoint that didn’t catch on, and there have been others recently at other broadcast networks that haven’t worked out. Do you still think that format can work on broadcast?
I just think that you have to be disciplined about what’s an event. I loved Gracepoint. I thought it was a very beautifully shot, beautifully acted show. But I’m not sure that it was very marketable as an event series. I feel better about Wayward Pines. Having M. Night Shyamalan’s name I think is important. I think the consumer has a sense of who he is. I think it’s easier in the summer where there isn’t quite as much clutter of scripted programming to communicate to the audience, “Come along for this ride.”
We hear a lot about the need to schedule year round, but do you see summer and fall and midseason as their own entities better suited to certain things than others?
I think that’s true. You think about summer, kids are home from school. It’s staying light later. In fall people are going back to school. They’re getting into routines. Holidays are a tough time, because people are distracted by holidays and family, as they should be. So I think it’s less about whether one season is as important as another. They’re all important, they all have opportunities. But I do think it’s smart to try to understand what is your viewer going through and how do you do shows that feel right for them. For instance, a lot of summer vacations. How do you program knowing that people are going to be away.
What do you see the network’s comedy brand being once you’ve had a chance to establish it?
I think it tends to be smarter, younger. I think shows like Brooklyn, New Girl, Mindy all sort of fill that. Last Man on Earth is going to be very much within that brand. I think the challenge is to have shows like that that are smart but that are not narrow. When you look at the amount of delayed viewing on a show like New Girl and a show like Brooklyn, they’re actually quite a bit broader than most people think looking at live-plus-same day ratings. I think it’s a cyclical thing. I don’t want to date myself, but even when I was at NBC, comedy was dead until Bill Cosby did a show. And comedy was dead again six, seven years ago until Modern Family. We’ve had a fair amount of success at the studio with comedy—How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, New Girl, the animation shows.
All of the shows that you just mentioned, except for How I Met Your Mother, were single-camera shows. Bob Greenblatt said yesterday that NBC is getting into the multi-cam business. Do you see a difference between the two forms? Are you comfortable with being a home for single-camera comedy?
We’re doing both. We’re developing both. You look at a show like Modern Family, it has all of that closeness and immediacy that multi-cam has. I don’t think you can dictate in comedy whether a show has to be multi-cam or a show has to be single-cam. Typically a show has a vision in mind and we believe in trying to support those visions. How I Met Your Mother was a multi-cam shot without an audience, shot over three days. We did it like you would do a single-camera show. We just had three or four cameras going at a time. There’s lots of hybrids. So we’re not going to worry whether it’s single-cam or multi-cam.
Empire has done very well in the ratings. What does that say about diversity on broadcast television?
What I really love about it is that we talk about diverse casting, and that’s important. That’s great. This is not about diverse casting. This was about a world that was presented to us in the pitch that was an African-American experience, an African-American world. I think that’s really resonated with our audience. Long ago we decided that our shows needed to look like the audience that we’re trying to reach. I think at the network something like 40% of the actors are diverse. At the studio, in addition to Empire, we’re doing Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat. So we’re really trying to be responsive to what’s really a business imperative, which is we have a big, broad population in our country with many different ethnicities. We’re trying to create programming that gives various people access points.