As Dana Walden
and Gary Newman, chairmen of
20th Century Fox Television, plot their follow-up to a strong 2009-10 TV season
for the News Corp. division, they will do so with orders for seven new series
on the broadcast networks next season. In all, Walden and Newman are due to
have 29 series in
production in the 2010-11 TV season.
Now it remains to be seen whether they can match
a turn that saw them-in their first season in a decade without supervision from
Peter Chernin-launch two of the biggest new hits on TV in Glee and Modern
Family. Also on their to-do list: preventing overexposure of Glee,
which Newman says he expects to sell into syndication "between now and next
year"; Walden brashly says Glee has the potential to succeed American
Idol as television's top-rated show.
In a candid conversation, the duo spoke with B&C
Executive Editor Melissa Grego at their offices on the Fox lot about how
they're defending against Glee becoming a one-season-wonder, why Chernin
will probably return to a role as corporate czar, and what Ryan Murphy and
Simon Cowell may be plotting. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Do you worry aboutGlee becoming a
one-season-wonder? Will the novelty of an hour-long musical comedy about the
glee club wear thin?
Dana Walden: I don't worry
that the novelty is going to wear off quickly. We are careful and sober about
the potential shortcomings of something that's burning this brightly. As brand
managers on this particular show, we turn down a lot of opportunities. It might
not seem like it, but you can only imagine [it] if you see the opportunities
that we have exploited so far. We have a truncated tour. There was an
opportunity to take this show around the country, right now, and sell out
We, together with [Glee creator] Ryan
Murphy, who has an incredible sense of what the right associations for this
show are right now, are managing this brand to try to extend a successful life
for as long as possible-just as we did with The Simpsons decades ago.
You start with an incredibly good show, and Ryan has so many wonderful ideas.
He's already pitched out the next 13 episodes of the next season, and the
storytelling and the characters and the new characters that are being
introduced to keep things feeling fresh.
He's a very contemporary storyteller, and that's
one of reasons why I think the show is connecting with audiences, that these
stories accelerate at a very quick pace. There's no navel-gazing. This is not
soap opera of years before where one moment is mined over several episodes.
It's how a younger demo consumes content and he's tapped into that.
So, you don't worry he's going to burn through or
run out of stories?
conversations are far more, "Can that be a three-episode arc, do we have to
dispense with that in one?" and he says, "Yes, because I'm on to something
new." He knows he has a big broad audience he has to connect with, and he knows
that every episode has to make the mother and father in the room feel nostalgic
and connected to the music while re-conceiving the music a little bit and
making sure it feels fresh and young.
American Idol, as lead-in, is a big part ofGlee's success.Idol's finale rated
its lowest since its first year, and Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly
even noted at the upfront that it is aging. How much trouble is the Death Star
DW: It's hard to
say. The appropriate and wise response on the part of the network was to
schedule the show in a way next year that it has an opportunity to shine and to
grow again. And by the way, it's still an incredible show. It's still an
But American Idol and Glee have
many things in common. Thematically, they are shows that send a message that
everybody is invited into the tent, everybody can have a chance to shine,
everyone will be included. And it's a very optimistic, positive, contemporary
message. They're celebratory of talent of how much people root for other
people, even people that they don't know. And I think it's a very timely
So, I think there are great reasons to be hopeful
about American Idol, but I also commend Fox for having the next thing
musically. They've got Glee. It wasn't like American Idol was
declining and Fox has nothing to share in that space; they actually have the
next show that is all about celebrating music.
The music industry is again looking to Fox as
probably as strong a platform to launch artists as anywhere else-as [strong as]
radio, as concerts. Fox maintained a hold on that particular market.
Do you think Glee could grow into American Idol's successor as the biggest show on television?
DW: Yes. I think Glee
has enormous upside. I think it has the potential-I don't want to say to
replace American Idol, because nothing can replace Idol-but in
terms of being the top-rated show, I do think this show has the potential to
grow to those kinds of heights.
I think American Idol will go on to be
incredibly highly rated, but its successor was never going to be another
competition show. That's not the way our business works.
DW: Potentially. I
don't want to discount [X Factor creator and departing Idol
judge] Simon [Cowell]. He clearly has also a remarkable ability to connect with
the viewers of this country. But I will tell you that Simon invited Ryan to
lunch at his house. They've had conversations about potentially working
together in the future, and Simon's no fool. He recognizes that there's
something about Glee that taps into all of the same things American
Idol has tapped into.
Ryan is exclusive to 20th, so anything he did with
Simon he would do with you essentially, correct?
DW: Look, it's very
speculative. Ryan has a full plate, Simon has a full plate. I only said it to
illustrate that even one of the biggest creative forces on that show recognizes
that the shows have similar attributes. They connect with audiences on a
similar level. They invite a very broad demographic of people.
Successful syndication sales, as you both well know,
have a ton to do with timing and available resources among the buyers. You've
got a third-season order already for Gleealong with some
strong numbers. There's some talk about your other freshman comedy, Modern Family, going next to market. Which makes most sense for
your business to go first?
Gary Newman:Glee and
Modern Family are really on different tracks. The story of [the sale of]
Big Bang Theory is how strong the cable business is. There's not another
comedy that had any real ratings power until Modern Family. And I think
if this fall a new comedy doesn't pop, Modern Family will be an island
for a course of three or four years before another show is that strong. So, I
think it lends real power to [Modern Family], and it might suggest that
[the company won't be] rushing to a deal-just as Big Bang didn't rush
into a deal.
Now, there's nothing in the entertainment
business that has the longevity of music. And Glee can be watched over
and over again. I think the cable network that is willing to take the risk on
it is going to be as richly rewarded as the Fox network is being rewarded right
now by being a company that was willing to take a risk on a musical, platform
it behind the biggest show in television and put that huge marketing campaign
In terms of timing, I think that Glee is
likely to sell soon, as in sometime between now and maybe a year from now. It
will be really interesting to see which of the cable networks has the vision to
step up to it.
an incredibly emotional connection between viewers of this show, and many
viewers are executives at cable companies and their kids and their families. We
have the live concert out on the road right now, in Los Angeles and New York,
and a great number of executives from cable companies and stations groups
jumped at the chance to take their families and be part of this event, which is
an hour and a half where you don't sit down. People are on their feet. They're
singing, they're dancing, they're swept up with all that is Glee. And
that can't not translate into someone believing this is a huge opportunity for
Is the company actively selling Glee?
Do you see Glee being sold
exclusively to cable?
GN: I think it will
probably take the form that hour syndication has in recent years, which is
being stripped on cable and then being available on weekends in broadcast. If a
station group had a different point of view and felt that it could strip the
show, I'm sure it's something that [Twentieth Television President] Greg Meidel
would entertain. But the likelihood is a more conventional structure.
The question is, who wants to identify themselves
with a show about music, comedy, something that isn't easily pitchable. It
isn't a procedural. It's an event show. It's a unique show.
There are several cable networks looking to
broaden as the playing field has leveled between broadcast and cable; they want
to be broader and more accessible to a large audience. We're already beginning
to hear from different cable networks that you might not expect to be as
aggressive as they are. There's a sense building that the show defies easy
description in terms of what's right for it. I think there are going to be a
bunch of companies competing for it.
Who are the likeliest candidates?
DW: What everyone saw with [the sale of] Big Bang Theory
is companies like USA or the combined MTV Networks stepping up in a mighty way.
I would anticipate that just as with Big Bang, there were cable groups
that previously hadn't been in the running for an off-net half-hour coming to
the forefront. Because they're all trying to build their brands, and they're
all trying to acquire platforms to build their own programming off the back of
Do you expect Peter Chernin, who left News Corp. a
year ago as president, COO and your direct boss, to remain working as an
independent producer, or will he go run a big company again, as many people
DW: It's very hard
to imagine that at some point Peter won't again have an opportunity to do
something incredibly meaningful and significant. That doesn't mean I don't
think he won't be a focused, successful producer with us, but I do think there
are probably huge opportunities awaiting his decision to get back into that
type of work.
He's clearly an incredibly ambitious person. He
has an incredibly dynamic and active brain, and you can see that in the company
he has set up at News Corp. and what the Fox Entertainment Group looks like at
this point in time; he's the person who put all those pieces into place. He is
interested in these kinds of machinations. They drive him, and I don't think
he's done with that yet.
Which of the networks got it right with their fall
schedules, and which got it wrong?
DW: Fox and CBS have very
interesting schedules. Both seem to be taking some shots, but wisely.
Complacency is the enemy, and each of the networks right now has seen the
downside of leaving long-running shows in prime time periods for too long. It's
a business that goes from being incredibly network-centric to the network
having to overpay to keep these long-running shows, and if you don't utilize
those shows in their prime to launch new assets, you're wasting opportunities
and creating problems for yourself down the road.
really applaud [ABC topper] Steve [McPherson] for sticking with Wednesday night
in the face of huge competition. We are greatly indebted to him for his
strength with Modern Family; Lord knows that all of us felt insecure
when American Idol was scheduled right from the beginning of its run up
against our little first-year show. We had a lot of conversations with Steve,
and he said, "I'm not going to run from it because I believe in this show, and
I think it's more important to demonstrate stability for our audience than it
is to try to run from American Idol." He was exactly right.
Does NBC have the goods to turn
GN: I have not seen a lot of their
shows. I'm sure, as every year, some of them are quite good, some are probably
works in progress. I think their challenge is it's almost impossible to launch
as many shows as they're trying to launch. You just see it year in and year
out-networks that try to launch a lot and try to fix a lot of nights at one time,
struggle. Networks that keep more focused on "this fall," "we'll try to fix
these two time periods," "these two nights," tend to have the most success.
CBS took a very calculated risk this
year moving Big Bang Theory to Thursday at 8 o'clock; it was really
smart, and I think it's going to work in that time period. They're not trying
to fix five nights. Their marketing focus, I'm sure, will be getting Big
Bang launched on Thursday.
NBC is going to have to choose between
these shows and pick a couple to focus on, and probably accept the fact that
some are going to have to survive just by word of mouth because they're going
to be without a huge marketing push behind them.
What is it like working with
Chernin as a producer rather than your boss?
DW: It's so easy [laughing].
What's the conversation like?
GN: Really, it took a brief
adjustment. He likes to say he works for us. We'll see him at a restaurant,
he'll introduce us to people and say, "Here are my bosses. I work for them. I'm
just a little producer."
We have such a long, close friendship,
and there's a great deal of teasing and kidding that goes on. But he was always
respectful of our decisions. He let us run things quite autonomously and rarely
stuck his nose in too many things unless we asked him to. And so I think he's
really pretty comfortable with how we've organized things.
Many of the ways in which we do things
were evolved over a decade with a great deal of input from him, so I think he's
comfortable with our process here. The results have been that we brought to him
some projects we thought would be interesting to him, and we thought he could
help us with his profile. Terra Nova
would be a great example of that.
You brought Terra Nova to
GN:Terra Nova we brought to
him. And to Steven Spielberg, actually. It's a project that is going to be
unusual; it's a very big creative and financial bet that the company's going to
take and needs to be treated uniquely and specifically. [We need] to bring in
big guns to communicate to the advertising world, international buyers,
everybody that this project is special. When those two guys have their names
attached to it, it comes with a sense that it's special. It's been great
working with Peter.
DW: Obviously, we have extraordinary
feelings for him. He's also as smart and adept and formidable an executive and
producer as there is in the business. We've been the lucky beneficiaries of his
[production] deal [at News Corp.]; the fact that we get to be part of putting
Peter Chernin in action in the production business is a huge opportunity for
us. And he's a talent magnet. People want to work with him.
He's as smart creatively as anyone
you'll ever want to work with. He has a very good sense of Zeitgeist, of what's
timely and people have an interest in consuming. He also has a genuine passion
for this business that is so contagious with the people who work with him. All
of the creators who have had an opportunity to work with him in the past year
have been blown away at how focused he is, how much of his time they get and
how additive he is in any process.
How has life been different at
the studio without Chernin there as an executive?
DW: It's been very different. We had
a fantastic relationship with Peter. Both of us consider him a great friend and
mentor, and someone who has taught us so much about the business and how we
want to operate. In our current roles supervising a lot of people and making
decisions about what's in the best interest of this company, I think both of us
have Peter a little bit in the back of our heads still guiding a lot of the
decisions that we make.
[Walden and Newman's current bosses, Fox
Filmed Entertainment Co-Chairmen] Tom [Rothman] and Jim [Gianopulos] have been
phenomenally supportive, and while they're the first to admit this is an area
of the business they're not really familiar with, they are willing to go to bat
for us. So, it's been a very rewarding relationship with them. It hasn't in any
way interfered with our business. It's been only additive in terms of the times
that they're willing to give support.
[News Corp. Deputy Chairman, President
and COO] Chase [Carey] has been really supportive and a person who gets it in
an extraordinary way. He's somebody you can spend a very short amount of time
with, and he understands your business very quickly and very adeptly. He knows
what the issues are.
Would you say you are operating a
little more hands-off now?
DW: Yes. Without question, Peter
provided us with a level of protection, and with that level of protection we
were a little bit more hidden from just the sort of practical realities of
being in a position like this. Peter protected us, but it also kept us from
being exposed a lot of times. And now there's complete exposure, and at this
point in our careers we're ready for that. It's actually been very beneficial.
If you look at the past year that we've
had, with Glee and Modern Family and TheCleveland Show and seven new shows ordered, I think that
Gary and I are ready to take the next step in terms of prominence and being in
the consciousness of this organization.
What kinds of things did Peter
protect you from? What are you now feeling exposed to?
GN: Peter was always the most
experienced person in the room. So, if you had a problem, he had a strong point
of view from having worked on the network side, having worked on the film side.
He brought a tremendous amount of experience in what we do.
So, there's an exposure where you're on
the line, where you have to make the call, which is really kind of fun. And if
you've been doing this as long as we have, you're now ready to step up and take
Is it a protection and exposure
to making good or bad decisions?
DW: It's a protection and exposure
to making decisions, period, because as Gary said, the way it used to work here
is if there was a dispute with an outside network or an issue that was becoming
charged, Peter would very quickly diffuse the situation; he would make a
decision and you had to live with his decision. Many times that was incredibly
productive, and obviously he was successful. The benefit of that is we learned
from a master what's the right time to make a decision; when any given issue
has percolated to the point that you can see what the right decision is for
your division and the corporation on the whole.
But taking the decision-maker out of the
mix has forced us to step up and fight for the things we really believe in and
to protect our organization, whether it's between divisions or with outside
networks or with producers and the agency community. A far greater pressure
exists on this line of management because ultimately the decisions are being
made by us.
Do you think that's part of the
reason you had such a great TV season? The timing was right for this
DW: That's a good question. I'm not
sure. I think what was great about this television season, as Gary said, was
that we'd had many successes in the past. Any studio would be grateful to have
any one of them. This year, we had two plus Cleveland.
It represented extraordinary timing. It wouldn't matter who was in the chair
above us if we didn't have Ryan Murphy executing his perfect idea in the
perfect manner at the exact right time, and [Modern Family creators]
Steve [Levitan] and Chris [Lloyd] doing the exact same thing while [The Cleveland
Show creators] Rich [Appel] and Seth [MacFarlane] and Mike [Henry] were
also doing the same thing. So, a lot of it is luck and timing.
But I will say it also did not hurt this
organization that the two people who know these issues the best, and are
closest to the problems in our own business and how to protect our assets, had
a greater decision-making opp over the past year.
Those two being you two.
Why does it take two people to
run 20th Century Fox Television?
DW: I don't think it takes two
people to run it; I think it takes two people to run it successfully.
Obviously, there are a lot of places where there's a sole head of the studio,
and it just enables us to cover so much more ground. We're talking about a
company that right now is producing 21 shows, and that's not including the
stuff that's on at FTvS that Gary and I are overseeing right now. That's just
at 20th and Fox 21.
It would be probably fine if it were our
goal just to remain what this company was when we initially took over, which
was a network production entity. We took orders from networks. Anything a
network would order we thought was a fantastic thing, and then we would deliver
the series. We had no greater control of our business at that time, and
everything has changed in the past decade.
We consider ourselves to be global
content creators. We deal with the international marketplace. Our shows migrate
along various platforms. We've really shifted this business over the past
decade, and that shift had a lot to do with the fact that there have been two
of us here watching the shop and pushing it forward. I think that in an
organization like this, there's a huge gravitational pull toward complacency.
And [there's a tendency] to just try to manage the volume on any given season
without being able to get a little bit above that and look forward and try to
keep the company relevant and moving forward and succeeding, in a way that I
think we have at this point.
GN: The truth is, we're leaner than
other companies. At our competitors, there's layer upon layer of senior
managers above the person who runs the division. I give a lot of credit to
Peter [Chernin]; he envisioned having two people at the top, particularly two
with different perspectives to run a very lean operation. To have two people
comfortable calling the shots, it actually makes us faster. If we felt that we
can't make a decision unless the other person has had a chance to weigh in,
that would slow us down, but we've never operated that way. We live with each
other's decisions. And communicate all the time.
Do you expect there to be a
trickle-down anytime soon to your business from broadcasters' pushes to get
cash compensation for retrans?
GN: It's indirect.
DW: That's exactly right. It's been
such a challenged business for so long, and when the networks are weak, the
trickle-down effect is they want to push risk more onto the studios, and that's
been very hard for us. Healthier networks means less desperation and
less-contentious negotiations because the stakes won't be quite as high when
you're negotiating any point on a license deal, but the health of the networks
is in our best interests.
How soon do you expect to see
GN: I think it's already happening.
It's never just one thing. I think the incredibly strong scatter market since
probably January made this pilot season a little better for everybody. On top
of that, at the same time the first significant retransmission deals were made.
I think there's just a feeling at the network over the course of the next few
years that their economics will be better. As a result, I think they're all
raising the bar for themselves in terms of what they can achieve on the
programming side, so I really believe this year the number of programs
ordered-it has to be a record number of series ordered-has to do with the
bullishness in the ad market.
So, would you say the broadcast
business is emboldened? Hopeful?
DW: Uh, emboldened is a little
strong [laughs]. Hopeful.
The 2009-10 TV season is a tough
act to follow. How do you keep the momentum up, and what's the pressure like to
GN: It's rare for a studio to have
that level of success on new programs year after year, and there's a reason for
it. You put several shows like that on the air. Your people in overall deals
are working on those shows. Some of our best creators created those shows, so
they didn't create anything else in the subsequent year, the first season. So,
Honestly, I think it would be an
unrealistic expectation that we should put on three shows that have that kind
of breakout success every year. And there is some pressure to keep that
pipeline full in the sort of sense of, what have you done lately?
But we're really proud of the crop of
shows that we planted this year. And legitimately to look at them, a number of
them are positioned in great time periods and have gotten great buzz from the
advertising community, great buzz from the international screenings. So, we're
hopeful that again we're going to have two or three of these shows break out,
and we'll be sitting here next year having added a few shows to the silent
ledger where you say this show has the legs to last five, six, seven years and
be meaningful for the company.
As you mentioned, you brought
Steven Spielberg into Terra Nova. Spielberg hasn't-yet-made
the transition to TV in the huge way that Jerry Bruckheimer has. Why do you
think that is?
GN: Jerry was unique in that he put
a tremendous focus and a lot of his effort into it, whereas I think Steven has
never been quite as focused on television. He always has his passion feature
projects that he directs. I think that Steven's very selective about what he's
DW: And there's a big difference
between the producer and the director in terms of time commitment.
GN: Yes, that takes a lot of time,
commitment and creative energy. But having just begun to interact with Steven
on this project, he clearly is an enormous fan of television. He seems to have
an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, and he has tremendous integrity
in the way in which he thinks about these projects. There isn't a bit of
cynicism or looking down on the audience.
Fundamentally, he understands that
television's about characters and their relationships, and he's been very clear
that unless you're developing feelings about these characters, you can make the
coolest-looking thing ever but it's not going to work.
Do you think you could be more
aggressive about reality development?
DW: The shots that we take have to
be done on a more realistic basis. But we certainly look at the success of an
Endemol or Reveille and want to be a bigger presence in the reality business.
We had some success with Beauty and the Geek, Simple Life, we
have variety of projects at FTVS and Fox 21. At Fox 21 in particular, we have
seven or eight projects in development. It takes one of those companies having
one big success in that arena to spawn other successes and build that area more
We are contemplating making a deal with
one of the more prominent reality producers, but it just has to be the right
I'm sure you'd love to tell me
who you're contemplating.
DW: We're not close to any. We've
had conversations with a variety of different producers. Right now, we're in
the dating stage with several different reality companies. The right
opportunity hasn't presented itself yet, but when it does, just as we've done
across the board, there's no one in this organization that would say be
conservative, take a small shot. We'd have no problem taking a big shot; it
just has to be the right shot.
What's the biggest issue worth
losing sleep over in TV right now?
GN: I wouldn't say it keeps me up at
night, but I spend a lot of time thinking about two things. One is the whole
digital exploitation of our product, the desire of the primary licensee, the
networks, to capture as much audience as they can. And the way in which they're
doing that is essentially streaming it for free on a limited advertising model.
And our concern is that's going to detract from some of the platforms that have
been profitable to us-home entertainment and syndication, specifically.
We have a long-term view of our assets.
We look at shows as 20-year pieces of business. Throw me on the air five, six,
seven years, but put it through several cycles of syndication.
So initially, you want as much exposure
as you can; then you want some scarcity to make those other platforms pay off.
Networks understand this but have a different point of view. They're trying to
generate as much revenue as they can in that relatively short window. There's
no afterlife for a network.
Secondarily, vertical integration is
something that even though we're a vertically integrated company, we have a
long history as studio that preceded the network by decades. That's an
important part of our identity; that we do business with all networks and why
we're appealing to writers and other talent. They know they come here and have
that relationship with Fox, but if their project does not go to Fox, it will
find its way to another network.
So, there's a lot of, we're all feeling
this out. And by the way, we are all going through the same issues. We all kind
of wrestle with these digital-window issues.
DW: I would add two other things.
First, the challenged economy throughout the world and how it's impacting the
successful sales of our shows internationally. We have an extraordinary
international team, they're incredibly good at their jobs. When you have the
shiny new acclaimed series, you're OK, but some shows don't want to come out of
the gate like that and yet you can still have a Big Bang Theory. So,
it's trying to find way to produce the very best quality shows when a great
portion of how we finance our shows is under this tremendous pressure.
Much as we did with 24 eight
years ago-when we were trying to produce it for a small license fee relative to
other first-season shows, which led this company to release first-season
DVDs-all of us need to be looking for what are the different opportunities to
spread the risk of these shows early on, so we can continue to afford the Glees of the future.
Secondly, not to be Pollyanna about it,
but I'm up at night because I'm excited about the optimism of this business.
All of the indications of this past season are that this business is gaining
strength and reviving itself. The tone creatively in our business is one of
excitement, and [a return] to writers and creators coming in with bold ideas
that they're excited about.
Warner Bros. TV President Peter
Roth told me that WBTV specifically targeted NBC with development, seeing an
opportunity in its increased development budget. WBTV has five shows on NBC's
schedule; you have one. Did you avoid the network?
DW: At the beginning of the season,
there was no opportunity there because they had no 10 o'clock time period availability,
so yes, we strategically avoided taking a lot of dramas there because it didn't
seem like there was opportunity. At the point that they shifted their strategy,
we had a lot of our development set up. We believe firmly in getting
development out at the beginning of the season and giving our writers the
maximum amount of time to work on their projects, so it wasn't calculated, but
it did end up that we didn't have a lot of development opportunities at NBC.
But as Gary said, network schedules are
built one at a time, and it's inconceivable that all five Warner Bros. shows
are going to be launched successfully to succeed, never mind to succeed as
And our network had needs. Our priority
is certainly trying to take care of our sister network first. Then we try to
set up projects that are more appropriate for outside networks. We take a lot
of time meeting and discussing and strategizing about the timing of our
development, the placement of our development, which of our showrunners should
be developing, because our greatest assets right now are the ones that have
been returned to the networks after their first season. Those are our genuine
shots. To compromise any of those would be foolhardy.
We're not interested in being pigs. We
want to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that makes good strategic
How important is it to you guys
for NBC to pick up the pace and turn it around?
DW: It's very important. What we've
seen in the past year with success across the board at a variety of different
places, cable companies and the networks, means there's a reason to be excited
about this business. You have one Glee or one Modern Family and
it makes you feel great about the entire business. It picks up the morale in
the community, it gets the writers excited about doing their best possible
work. And the more success that the networks experience right now, the greater
the sentiment will build in our industry. It's all good for everybody.
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