When Jonathan (Jonnie) Davis was promoted last month to president, creative affairs, he became the first 20th Century Fox Television exec to oversee all scripted primetime development and current programming since Jennifer Salke left in 2011 to become NBC Entertainment president. Davis had previously run comedy and animation development for the studio.
The move was part of an executive restructuring that saw better titles and more responsibilities distributed on the business affairs and legal sides as well. It also came just in time for pilot season to heat up. Since Davis’ promotion, the studio has received a series order from Fox for the Will Forte comedy Last Man on Earth and landed a buzzgenerating lead actress in indie film favorite Greta Gerwig for its CBS pilot, How I Met Your Dad. On the current side, high-profile limited series Crisis premieres March 16 on NBC.
“I love reading these scripts, particularly getting into these dramas now,” Davis says when asked about his new purview. “I took a whole bunch of dramas home the last couple of weeks, and it is just incredible.” He spoke with B&C programming and digital media editor Daniel Holloway about timing, talent and the need to patiently grow great content.
Most of your series orders this past year have come from Fox. Is selling to other networks still a priority?
With Fox being right next door, that’s the hit that feels best, when we have success together. That said, everything can’t be for them— not that they want everything we deliver. It is hard right now to grow a hit. The alchemy has to be almost flawless. We just try to ask ourselves, OK, where does it go, and try to get to that network and that time period.
Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly’s comment at TCA that he was abandoning pilot season started a lot of talk. How real is the death of pilot season?
Look, there’s still a regular pilot season. We’re still in that system, but we’ve been focusing on when is the right time that a project finds its voice. If it’s in the middle of a regular pilot-season structure, awesome. If it’s not, we just keep our heads down and try to make the best product we can, no matter what time of year it is.
Are there any quantifiable differences this year? More straight-to-series orders?
Yes, I think we’re seeing more straight-to-series, specifically with Fox, and NBC as well.
We had an order with Will Forte to do this great comedy going to series at Fox with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and that talent gave Kevin [Reilly] the confidence to say, “Wow, that package feels really incredible and I’m willing to place a higher bet on it.”
How important is the potential success of How I Met Your Dad as a successor series to How I Met Your Mother?
When they pitched this idea and we heard it, I just said, “Get out of the way. This thing is incredible. Let’s do everything we can to support it.” It’s an important show. We don’t get an actress like Greta [Gerwig] often, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it great, because people come into this show with high expectations. It’s not like a regular pilot where we haven’t seen the body of work that the writers had before. People are going to be ready to say, “Oh, it’s not as good as How I Met Your Mother.”
You have a limited series coming up at NBC with Crisis. Why is that model so appealing to the networks?
It’s just a great way to dip your toe in the water, see if you can create buzz and quality work. It’s something that is very easy to promote, and I think that it’s attractive to talent. Our job as providers to networks is to get the greatest talent we can to the networks. This is a model that talent really likes, because they can still do a movie, still do a lot of other things. So this keeps us competitive with cable.
You have received so far this season a fairly even split of multi-cam and singlecam comedy pilot orders. Is one a tougher sell than the other?
I think it’s been even this year. I can tell you, you just feel like somebody wants to do the next great multi-camera. And the numbers don’t lie. With The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, there’s something that connects with people. But when you do it wrong—people want to kill you when you make a bad multi-camera. I personally love multi-cameras. I want to do more multicameras. I felt more people wanted to get into the multi-cam business this year.