Fox revealed its fall programming lineup Monday, with five new shows joining a trio of returning freshman hits and a problematically aging core of other titles as the net continues a high-stakes turnaround effort.
The 2013-14 season “was a tough one for us,” conceded Fox Broadcasting Co. entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly during a conference call with reporters. Returning shows faltered badly this spring, notably American Idol, negating the splash of fall breakouts Sleepy Hollow and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In the current climate of time-shifting and dozens of competing platforms – including those within the Fox family – “your circulation can get challenged. If you don’t have something to raise everything up, as Idol did for so many years, it’s a struggle.” Reilly cited the lift NBC got from the Winter Olympics and The Voice. “We didn’t have that,” he said.
Fall debuts on Fox include Batman comic book origin story Gotham on Monday nights, paired with Sleepy Hollow; “double-pumped” reality series Utopia on Tuesdays and Fridays; Steven Spielberg-produced hospital soap Red Band Society on Wednesday; 10-episode Broadchurch remake Gracepoint on Thursday; and live-action comedy Mulaney, which joins the Sunday lineup. Sundays had long been dominated by animation, but with Mulaney bowing and Brooklyn Nine-Nine moving to Sundays, the night will now mix live-action and animation.
Focusing on strengths, the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers late Monday afternoon at the Beacon Theatre emphasized the John de Mol-produced Utopia and its internationally proven concept; event programming; limited series Wayward Pines and Gracepoint; and sports. Drama series didn’t get the spotlight until about 45 minutes in. Overall, the rhythm was brisk and the tone resolutely aimed at reassuring media buyers about Fox’s confidence in a turnaround.
Sunday night’s blend of animation and live action signals Fox is “returning to our roots,” Reilly said. “Some of the biggest live action comedies in our history” have aired on Sundays, including Married with Children, Malcolm in the Middle and That ’70s Show. Nodding to the heir to that throne, Fox gave Brooklyn star Andy Samberg the stage for more than five minutes Monday, and he delivered a condensed version of Jimmy Kimmel’s riffs on rival networks during the ABC upfront. He also joked about a new Fox multiplatform initiative called Entertainment Network Electronic Media Asset Strategy—or ENEMA.
A wave of new entries—Backstrom, Bordertown, Empire, Hieroglyph, The Last Man on Earth, Weird Loners and Wayward Pines—is on tap for midseason/summer 2015. Fox also plans more live specials in the coming season. Among them are the Evel Knievel-inspired Jump of the Century, Grease Live, and a debut New Year's celebration set in Miami and hosted by Pitbull, who kicked off the Beacon presentation with a dancer-augmented rendition of his hit “Give Me Everything.”
Reilly has loudly proclaimed the death of pilot season and vowed to bring about true year-round programming, something networks have mused about for years but generally not delivered. The parceling out of new content has sometimes meant, for example, hits like Sleepy Hollow not having enough new episodes to stay on the air, or the reboot of 24 coming along a few months later than would be ideal.
“Don’t think I wasn’t saying in February, ‘Man, I wish I had 24 on the air right now,’” Reilly said during the conference call. But in the new era, he added, “June is just as important as January.” He repeated that line at the Beacon, adding “every platform is as any other.”
Chief Operating Officer Joe Earley acknowledged during the call that the evening out of the traditional cycle will be costly in the near term given the vertical promotional opportunities are more limited. Fox’s press release called the raft of new and returning shows “the biggest investment in programming” in the network’s history. Earley predicted “the cycle should start to support itself. Until we get there, though, it does take a lot more marketing dollars.”
Execs downplayed the misfires of new hopefuls like Dads or Almost Human (and in truth, the net’s batting average wasn’t any worse than other broadcast nets’) but they spoke candidly about the challenges of longer-in-the-tooth titles like Glee and American Idol. In particular, Idol’s decline has officially entered the realm of the secular, according to comments during the call.
“Idol’s not going to come back to being the ratings champion it was,” Reilly said. The network’s aim is for it to be a “quality performer, in the same way that Survivor has. It’s not about turning it around. It’s now about making it a good show for years to come,” Reilly said.
In a concession to the wages of time, after 13 seasons of 50-hour-plus seasons, Idol’s run this winter/spring will be 37 hours. The “streamlined” format will mean that instead of taking up two nights a week, once it gets past the audition phase it will likely be confined to a single two-hour night.
Glee was picked up for two seasons due to a “business negotiation,” Reilly explained to reporters. The 22 episodes slated for Season 6 will be the final ones, though creator Ryan Murphy and Fox brass “will be meeting soon to figure that out” in more detail, a process more fraught given the show’s slipping ratings.
Sleepy Hollow, meanwhile, will return with 18 new episodes, attesting to Fox’s stated willingness to experiment with orders and schedules. “The order should be tailored to the nature of the show,” Reilly said. “It didn’t come down on stone tablets that shows have to be made in 13 or 22 episodes.”
In contrast to Fox’s pitch a year ago at the Beacon, where Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest shared the limelight, there was virtually no mention of American Idol. The network chose to end the event by premiering a song produced by Timbaland from hip-hop industry saga Empire, the show that will lead out of Idol and, perhaps, lead Fox to better times.
Fox Fall 2014 Schedule
(New programs in UPPER CASE; all times ET)
8:00-9:00 PM GOTHAM
9:00-10:00 PM Sleepy Hollow
8:00-9:00 PM UTOPIA
9:00-9:30 PM New Girl
9:30-10:00 PM The Mindy Project
8:00-9:00 PM Hell's Kitchen
9:00-10:00 PM RED BAND SOCIETY
8:00-9:00 PM Bones
9:00-10:00 PM GRACEPOINT
8:00-9:00 PM MasterChef Junior
9:00-10:00 PM UTOPIA
7:00-10:30 PM Fox Sports Saturday
7:00-7:30 PM NFL Game
7:30-8:00 PM Bob's Burgers
8:00-8:30 PM The Simpsons
8:30-9:00 PM Brooklyn Nine-Nine
9:00-9:30 PM Family Guy
9:30-10:00 PM MULANEY